(Sanaa) –Yemen should protect its girls from the devastating effects of early marriage by setting 18 as the minimum age for marriage by law, Human Rights Watch said today. The current political transition and drafting process for a new constitution offer a unique opportunity for the Yemeni government to enact laws protecting the rights of girls.
In early September, a story emerged about an 8-year-old girl who bled to death on her wedding night after she was raped by her new husband, who is in his 40s. Since then, activists across the region have been discussing on various social media platforms how to combat the practice of child marriage. A new Human Rights Watch video documents the psychological and physical harm that child marriage causes to girls. In the video, a father expresses his regret at having chosen to give up his two young daughters to marriage, and two members of the religious community and a Nobel Laureate speak about the need to abolish the practice.
“Thousands of Yemeni girls have their childhood stolen and their futures destroyed because they are forced to marry too young,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The Yemeni government should end this abusive practice.”
Members of the Rights and Freedoms Committee in the country’s National Dialogue Conference should recommend prohibiting child marriage during its final plenary session in September 2013, Human Rights Watch said. When the committee charged with drafting a new constitution as part of the transitional period is convened, it should consider including an 18-year age minimum in the new constitution. If no minimum age is included, parliament should pass a law setting the minimum age at 18.
The Friends of Yemen, the group of states and intergovernmental institutions donating billions in aid to Yemen, should at its meeting in New York on September 25 consider increasing support for programs that boost girls’ and women’s access to education, reproductive health information and services, and protection from domestic violence, both in cities and rural areas.
Tawakkol Karman, the Yemeni activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, has criticized the transitional government’s failure to ban child marriage. She told Human Rights Watch that: “[Yemen’s] popular, peaceful revolution came about for the sake of fixing these societal problems. It didn't happen just to solve political problems, but also to address societal problems, the most important being child marriage.”
A 2011 Human Rights Watch report documented severe and long-lasting harm to Yemeni girls forced by their families to marry, in some cases when they were as young as 8. Human Rights Watch spoke to 34 Yemeni girls and women. They said that marrying early meant that they lost control over their lives, including the ability to decide whether and when to bear children. They said that it had cut short their education, and some said they had been subjected to marital rape and domestic abuse.
There is no legal minimum age for girls to marry in Yemen and the only legal protection for girls is a prohibition on sexual intercourse until the age of puberty. In some cases documented by Human Rights Watch, however, girls were married before their first menstrual period and were raped by their husbands.
Yemen’s transitional authorities have failed to seriously address child marriage, Human Rights Watch said. The transition period, which began after Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down from the presidency under popular pressure in February 2012, will culminate with presidential and parliamentary elections in February 2014. As part of the transition, the six-month long National Dialogue Conference began on March 18. During the conference’s second plenary in June, it passed 363 directives, but not a single one referred to the practice of child marriage.
Yemeni government and United Nations data from 2006 shows that approximately 14 percent of girls in Yemen are married before age 15, and 52 percent are married before age 18.
One child bride, who married at age 13, told Human Rights Watch: “I thought marriage was just a wedding, a party and that was it. I didn't have any idea that marriage had another meaning.” She described how her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, and then her second came during her first year of high school.
“I loved learning,” she said. “Then my family saw the results of my first year of high school and I had failed.... The pregnancy influenced my health, because my body wasn’t ready for pregnancy at that young age. As a side effect I was unable to study because of the fatigue of pregnancy.... My dream when I was young had been to become a doctor.”
Several girls told Human Rights Watch that their parents had removed them from school as soon as they reached puberty. Almost all of the girls and women interviewed said that once they were married, they were unable to continue or complete their education, and many had children soon after marriage.
Girls and women also said that they were often exposed to gender-based violence, including domestic abuse and sexual violence. Married girls and women in Yemen often live with their husband’s extended family, and some told Human Rights Watch that their husbands, in-laws, and other members of the husband’s household verbally or physically assaulted them.
Yemen has backtracked on protecting girls from forced marriage. In 1999, Yemen’s parliament, citing religious grounds, abolished the legal minimum age for marriage for girls and boys, which was then 15. In 2009, a majority in parliament voted to set 17 as the minimum age, but a group of lawmakers, contending that reinstating a minimum age would be contrary to Sharia (Islamic law), used a parliamentary procedure to prevent the law from going into effect.
Many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa that recognize Sharia as a source of law have set the marriage age at 18 or higher, with some allowing exceptions in narrow circumstances. These include: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
Yemen is party to a number of international treaties and conventions that explicitly – or have been interpreted to – prohibit child marriage and commit governments to take measures to eliminate the practice, including the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriage. UN treaty-monitoring bodies that oversee implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child have recommended a minimum age of 18 for marriage.
“The protesters in Change Square in 2011 risked their lives to demand equal rights for all Yemenis, and girls should be no exception,” Gerntholtz said. “Child marriage is a violation of their human rights and should be ended.”
Child marriage is defined as the marriage of a child under 18 years of age (AlAmodi, 2013, p. 1979). In Yemen, which is one of the world’s most conservative countries, where a strict interpretations of Islam dictates people’s lives, child marriage is a serious troubling issue (Nour, 2009, para. 1). Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world. Following the Spring of 2011, it has been left with a disturbing power vacuum. It’s arid, filled with a high rate of illiteracy and paralyzed by ancient traditions (Harlan, 2015, para. 6).
Nearly fifty percent of all women in Yemen were married as children (Harlan, 2015, para. 8). According to Al Amodi (2013), 14 percent of girls are married before the age of 15 while 52 percent of girls are married before the age of 18 years and some cases have even younger ages as low as eight years old girls. The issue in child marriage is that girls who get married young often drop out of school and lose the chance of their right in education. Moreover, they are more likely to die when giving birth, and they face a higher risk of sexual and physical abuse than women who get married at 18 or older (“Yemen: End Child Marriage”, 2014, para. 3).
Another issue child marriage imposes on the Yemeni society is the health issue of the future generations born from these marriages age (AlAmodi, 2013, p. 1979). Although child marriage continues to be common in many areas in Yemen, officials and politicians either deny or promise to establish a new law to set a minimum age of marriage in the country. In 2009, a law sets the minimum age for marriage to be 17 years. However, the conservative members of the parliament objected to this law, arguing it is un-Islamic to set a minimum age of marriage, and therefore the law was not implemented. The failure of implementing such a law is severely damaging the society on several levels. Therefore, child marriage in Yemen should stop as it violates human rights, has devastating health consequences and violates international laws (Al Amodi, 2013, p. 1980).
Human Rights Violations
Child marriage is a serious human rights violation affecting children’s and women’s rights to health, proper education, equality, non-discrimination and the right to live free from exploitation and violence. These are rights preserved in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states that Marriage shall be entered only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. Furthermore, child marriage violates the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as many other international and regional human rights instruments and declarations (Jiminiz, 2009, p. 35).
One of the rights girls lose when married so young and has a crucial effect on their lives is the right to be educated. Child marriage most probably ends a girl’s education for good. Girls who are early married are often expected to hold responsibilities at home that are prioritized by society over attending school. The lack of education limits a girl’s choices and possible opportunities throughout her life. And the logical consequence of this exclusion is often poverty. In Yemen, one girl who married at the age of 12 told Human Rights Watch that all she is gone for is to be a mother and a homemaker because she is illiterate. Without education, girls and adult women have fewer opportunities to financially provide for themselves and their families. Case studies show how limited education makes girls and women more vulnerable to poverty when their spouses die or divorce them (“Q & A: Child Marriage and Violations of Girls’ Rights”, 2013, para. 11).
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According to Ramdani (2013), the Human Rights Watch has documented the critical and long run harm of child marriage on Yemeni girls, where they are in most cases forced to get married by their families. In some cases, girls in Yemen are forced to marriage as young as eight years old. A famous example of these extreme cases is Nujood Ali, a Yemeni girl who was married at the age of eight and divorced at the age of 10 (Sheffer, 2013, para. 2). Nujood is one of many cases of child marriage in Yemen, but unlike other cases, Nujood grabbed international attention and it even went to becoming a bestselling book. The significance of this case is that it showed the hideous reality of child marriage, and it is one of the rare cases where a child was granted divorce, breaking the tribal tradition in Yemen (Daragahi, 2008, para. 4). Nujood, who was eight years old at the time, was fundamentally manipulated into getting married (Daragahi, 2008, para. 19).
According to Daragahi (2008), Nujood did not even know she was getting married, as innocent and naive as she was, she thought her parents were taking her to have a good time at a friend’s house, when she was shocked at the end with the news of her being married and she cannot leave her new home. Furthermore, Nujood was married for a dowry of a little bit more than $750, after her husband gave his word to her father for not having sex with her before the year after she has her first period as required by law in Yemen. However, what followed was a series of sexual and physical abuses that started on the wedding night. The previous facts clearly demonstrate violations to the Declaration of Human Rights, but in Yemen, it is unfortunately more complicated. Under the Yemeni law, there is no crime of marital rape, therefore, Nujood the eight-year-old child was raped by her husband and there were no laws broken.
Nujood is only a case among thousands to say the least, but it represents the amount of injustice and oppression the issue of child marriage brings to the Yemeni young society. Child marriage clearly violates human rights and as long as it is still happening, the problem will grow only bigger, and the negative effects of this phenomenon will reach far more than the violation of human rights to the violation of the physical and psychological health of the young Yemeni “brides” (Ba Abbad, 2014, para. 12).
Health Consequences of Child Marriage
Another aspect of the problem of child marriage in Yemen and another reason why there should be clear deterrent laws to stop child marriage is the devastating health dangers that young girls are subject to. These dangers include depression, dangers during sexual intercourses, threats during pregnancy and labor as well as endangering the born infants (Nour, 2009, para. 10).
Once married, a girl is taken to her husband’s household, where she performs the role of a wife. This role in Yemen means that a girl under the age of 10 will act as a domestic worker, and eventually a mother (Nour, 2009, para. 10). And according to Khan (2013), early married girls are at a higher risk of psychological disorders than those who get married as adults. As young girls in Yemen are denied the right to freely express their views and the fact that they are being controlled by devastating traditional practices, this will, in turn, increase the risk of lifetime and recurrent psychological disorders. Moreover, early married girls are more likely to experience domestic violence from their husbands, and in Yemen, domestic violence is a growing issue that leads to depression among married women. (Nour, 2009, para. 13).