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"Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him," Tahani (in pink) recalls of the early days of her marriage to Majed, when she was 6 and he was 25. The young wife posed for this portrait with former classmate Ghada, also a child bride, outside their mountain home in Hajjah. Nearly half of all women in Yemen were married as children. Every year, throughout the world, millions of young girls are forced into marriage. Child marriage is outlawed in many countries and international agreements forbid the practice yet this tradition still spans continents, language, religion and caste. (Stephanie Sinclair)

Childhood Interrupted

Yemen to Finally Ban Child Marriage?

The country is one of the last in the Middle East to establish a minimum age for marriage, but pressure from inside the government could soon protect young girls from forced unions.

The Human Rights Ministry of Yemen has confirmed that one of its officials has helped to prevent the wedding of a 12-year-old girl, which was due to take place earlier this month. Hiba was to be married in Taiz, Southern Yemen, but the official notified local police who ensured an immediate divorce. There have been reports too of similar interventions taking place in other parts of the country.

With no minimum age of marriage in Yemen, while Hiba and others are out of danger for the moment, without any legal sanctions to support them, these girls remain at serious risk.

However, things may be about to change at last. The Human Rights Ministry, under Hooria Mashhour’s strong leadership, has put child marriage at the top of its agenda. This ministry has been responsible for putting pressure on other members of government to ensure that a minimum age of marriage draft bill is introduced at the next opportunity as part of the ‘National Dialogue’, the process which has followed the country’s recent political uprising.

Fouad Al Ghaffari, from the Ministry, has indicated that this bill might be introduced by the Minister of Legal Affairs in the very near future. It will probably be based on a 2009 bill, which had proposed fixing the minimum age of marriage for girls at age 17. This was initially backed by Yemeni women and children’s rights organizations, but in late 2010, it was effectively blocked by traditional and religious leaders and the parliament’s Shariah committee. It is hoped that there will be more support on this occasion, but it is far from certain.

Child marriage is common in Yemen, particularly in rural areas. In 2006, the United Nations estimated that half of girls are married by the age of 18, with many marrying much younger. This is hugely detrimental to a girl’s physical, psychological and emotional health and well-being, but also means that her education and future prospects are severely compromised. Complications during sexual intercourse and childbirth put the girl at particularly high risk.

Recent high-profile cases illustrate the impossible realities, which young girls have to confront in Yemen. The case of Rawan, an eight-year-old girl, who supposedly died on her wedding night, received huge media attention, but reports have been disputed by officials. Unfortunately there are lots of other cases, which have been verified. Thirteen-year-old Ilham was married and died three days later due to excessive bleeding, caused by a tear to her genitals during sexual intercourse. Twelve-year-old Salwa committed suicide by throwing herself from the roof of her house, after being forced into marriage by her father, while 11-year-old Sarah was imprisoned and chained by her father in an effort to force her into marriage.

There have been some minor successes too. Along with the Yemen Women’s Union (YMU), Equality Now helped get a divorce for Wafa, an 11-year-old girl. She had been married to a 40-year-old farmer, who repeatedly raped and tortured her.

Wafa simplifies it for other parents and tells them that: “they should not think of marrying their daughters at a young age; girls should go to school. I don’t want any girl to suffer as I did. Girls should be educated in order to be able to live happily and in dignity.”

Yemen and its immediate neighbour, Saudi Arabia, are the last two countries in the region to establish a minimum age of marriage. A proposed Saudi law is also in the works, but we are still awaiting confirmation on that too. At the moment, we do not know for sure how things will move forward, but we believe there is reason to be hopeful.

Please join us in taking action on this issue to help end child marriage in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia and enable all girls to reach their full potential.

 

Suad Abu-Dayyeh is Equality Now’s Middle East and North Africa Consultant.

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