Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat – Yemen is witnessing heated debate regarding the phenomenon of child marriage, especially that last month Yemeni Parliament approved a law which set the minimum age of marriage at 17 years old. This law provoked the anger of the Islamist trend in Yemen, both inside and outside of parliament, and a number of parliamentary members have called for the abolition [of this legal statute].
In 2005, the Yemeni Network Combating Violence Against Women [SHIMA] in cooperation with the Yemeni Women’s Union and other related civil organizations launched the first campaign of its kind to publicize the dangers of child marriage, and its social, psychological, and physical implications. Last Tuesday, the Yemeni Ministry of Social Affairs presented a report to the Yemeni government on the issue of child marriage.
According to the Yemeni Minister of Social Affairs, Dr. Amat al Razaq Ali Hamad, the phenomenon of child marriage has been spreading throughout Yemeni society for many years, especially in Yemen’s rural areas. She told Asharq Al-Awsat that child marriage in Yemen is a real problem “although this has begun to decrease through women’s education.” She also stressed that the report submitted to the government is based on scientific research on child marriages that reveal its negative impacts. The report also presented a set of recommendations to curtail this phenomenon.
Dr. Hamad expressed strong opposition to reopening the debate on minimum age for marriage in parliament, stressing that her own ministry was trying to protect underage girls.
Child marriage in Yemen was considered normal, regardless of its risks and its prohibition by international legislation. However last year, a number of cases were revealed which shed light on this phenomenon, the most prominent of which was Nujood Ahdal who at the age of ten secured the annulment of her marriage to a husband three times her age.
Nujood informed Asharq Al-Awsat that she was “upset” at being forced to marry at a young age and that after she was married her life “was not normal” but after the annulment her life has “started afresh.” Nujood has now returned to primary school, where she wishes to continue her studies and send a message to other young girls to reject parental pressure to accept marriage at a young age.
Ahmed Alqurashi, President of the SEYAJ Organization for Childhood Protection [in Yemen] believes that the request of some parliamentarians for this issue to be returned for parliamentary deliberation is dangerous. He has called on all parliamentarians to stand with the people and protect the young girls who are victims of child marriage. He told Asharq Al-Awsat, “We hope that this [talk about returning to a parliamentary debate] is just their opinion, and has nothing to do with religious authority, or what is Haram [religiously prohibited] and what is Halal [religiously permissible].”
With regards to the law instituting a minimum age for marriage, Alqurashi said that this was a positive step for human rights in Yemen and that “reversing it would be to withdraw from international human rights conventions in general, especially those that deal with child protection.”
Dr. Abdul Bari Doghaish, who is a Yemeni MP, believes that calling for this issue to be returned to parliamentary deliberation is within the [political] rights of any Yemeni MP. However, he added that “speaking as a doctor, the decision to legislate a minimum age for marriage is a good one,” and that girls who “do not possess the physiological capabilities of bearing a child” should not be married.
He added that it is unlikely that parliament would retract this decision, although the possibility remains open, but stressed that he himself would not vote for its retraction, and that a large majority of the ruling party bloc, to which Doghaish belongs, would also vote against it, in addition to a number of other parliamentary blocs.
A Yemeni academic report published in 2008 revealed that there are a number of reasons behind the phenomenon of child marriage in Yemen, and that it is rooted in social tradition and has little to do with the increase of poverty in Yemen. The study revealed that “the main factor behind the phenomenon of child marriage is the spread of cultural trends that advocate marriage, and most of the population believes that Islam advocates marriage at a young age.”
The study also revealed that social structures in some Yemeni provinces are extremely traditional so there is little room for social [and financial] mobility except through marriage. Therefore [in this respect] the high rates of child marriages are attributed to the increasing levels of poverty in the country, as families hope to get rid of the burden of young girls on family resources. The study revealed that 52 percent of girls married in Yemen over the last two years were under the age of 15, with the analogous statistic for men standing at only seven percent during the same time frame.
There are a number of members of the Islamist trend in parliament who call for the renewal of parliamentary debate with regards to the minimum age of marriage. The most prominent of these Islamists is Sheikh Zaid al Shami who is the Deputy Chairman of the Islamic Reform bloc; he informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “nobody is saying that a girl should be married before she gains the physical and psychological maturity to do so.”
He added that his reasons for opposing the minimum marriageable age bill are firstly because “boys and girls mature at different stages according to the environment in which they live,” and because this is against “Islamic Sharia.” He also called for the official Yemeni Mufti to be consulted saying he is “not affiliated to any one group over another; we must abide by Islamic Sharia.”
According to statistics, one in every four marriages that takes place in Yemen today is between a man who is at least 25 years older than his wife, and often there are cases of domestic abuse. In spite of government efforts to counter this phenomenon, it is complex and difficult to illuminate as it contains tribal, economic and social elements. However Yemeni society is moving to combat this; women are becoming more and more involved, and today there are hundreds of women who openly stand against child marriage. However, the journey will be a long one.