“I was 12 years old when I got married. I was a child… All that I’m good for is to be a mother and a home maker…. I’m illiterate… I feel like someone is choking me. There’s so much heaviness on my chest.” Fathiya, interviewed by Human Rights Watch, 2010
In one of the less-observed political movements that spread across the Middle East last year, protesters in Yemen demanded the abdication and arrest of Ali Abdullah Saleh, president of Yemen for 33 years. They called for democratic elections. These protesters have largely been disappointed. The peace plan, brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, granted amnesty for Saleh and handed the presidency over to his deputy Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in a one-candidate election. This political changeover has taken place against a backdrop of crises in the country, as the president in Sana’a faces secessionist rebels in the South, Houthi rebels in the North, and most worryingly to foreign observers, a powerful branch of Al Qaeda.
Amid this chaos, women’s groups have an opportunity to ensure that women and children’s rights are enshrined in the new constitution that is currently being negotiated. Central to issues of women’s rights in Yemen is child marriage.
“How can you improve girls’ education when they are taken out of school to be married? How can you reduce maternal or child mortality, when girls are giving birth at 12 or 13? How can you reduce poverty when child marriage perpetuates poverty?” Mary Robinson
Child marriage is an issue of global concern. According to the Population Council, 10 million girls are forcibly married every year throughout the world. The effects of child marriage are widespread and incredibly damaging, to the girls who are forced into marriage and to the communities as a whole. The MDG currently furthest from its target is Goal 5; that aims to improve maternal health. Child marriage is playing a significant role in this failure. Girls, in particular girls under the age of 15, have not fully developed and have smaller pelvises. As a result they are 5 times more likely to die in childbirth.
Child marriage is particularly common in Yemen. Yemen is one of the only countries in the world with no minimum age for marriage. According to UNICEF, 52% of girls under 18 in Yemen are married, and 14% of these girls are under 15 years of age. In rural districts like Hadhramaut and Hudaida, girls as young as eight years of age are forced to marry. This has a massive impact on the girls’ development. Forcing a child to marry someone often at least double their own age is consigning them to repeated rape, to domestic abuse and psychological trauma. In Human Rights Watch’s 2011 report on child marriages in Yemen, the majority of women surveyed had faced some form of physical abuse in their marriage.
Yemen underlines the connection between child marriage and maternal mortality. It has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the region, with approximately 210 deaths per 100,000 live births. To put that into context, nearby Kuwait has a maternal mortality rate of 9 deaths per 100,000 live births. Yemen’s maternal mortality rate is further worsened by the fact that 80% of women in Yemen give birth without a midwife in attendance.
Child marriage limits girls’ progress by keeping them out of school. Women in Yemen have a literacy rate of 40%, trailing behind men, 77% of whom are literate. The majority of girls are taken out of school aged ten to work at home and if possible to be married. If a child is married, they will not return to school. The personal impact on the lives of these girls is catastrophic. Girls’ education, seen by many as a cornerstone to development, is hopelessly undermined by child marriage.
In 2008, Yemen’s child brides became a subject of international outcry with the case of 10 year old Najood Ali. Although Najood became the first child bride to successfully divorce her husband, she was obliged to pay him $200 and he faced no punishment for raping and beating her. The Women’s National Committee took this opportunity to propose legislation that set the legal age of marriage at 18, in line with Yemen’s legal obligations as a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These proposals were silenced in March 2010 when a number of clerics led by Sheikh Majid al-Zindani, head of Yemen’s Islamic reform party, issued a fatwa on the issue. They asserted that specifying an age for marriage was contrary to Sharia law. However, other Arab states that follow Sharia law do have minimum ages set for marriage. In Saudi Arabia, the legal age for marriage is 17 years of age, and in Oman, it is 18. The reality is that opposition to a legal age for marriage stems from the strong tribal traditions found in Yemen, not from Islamic faith.
Women were at the heart of last year’s protests, women like Tawakkul Karman and Ramziz al-Eryany. Tawakkul Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for her work for women’s rights. A member of Al-Zindani’s party, she has spoken out against child marriage in Yemen, asserting that Sharia law supports a minimum age for marriage. Ramziz al-Eryany is chairperson of the Yemeni Women’s Union, an organisation that tackles child marriage. The Yemeni Women’s Union is working to include a minimum age for marriage in the new constitution. Alongside this advocacy work they hold workshops throughout the country, explaining to people the dangers and risks associated with child marriage.
Yemen has a chance with this new constitution to listen to women like Karman and al-Eryany and to make real changes in the lives of women and girls like Fathiya. At this critical juncture, Yemen needs to stop trailing behind other Arab states, hardly pioneers in women’s rights, and listen to the leaders and change-makers that it already has.