Child Marriage in Yemen
Child marriage in Yemen is a centuries-old human rights violation. Adults, especially those living in poverty, force young teenage girls to marry men decades older than them due to reasons such as the relief of costs in caring for a child and for the heightened protection of a husband’s family. Perhaps worse than the basic psychological harm of having to enter into marriage, child brides endure abuse and face life-threatening risks. According to a 2019 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), more than 4 million Yemeni girls are child brides and 1.4 million of these brides are younger than 15 years old. This practice needs to end to protect young girls physically and emotionally. Banning child marriage in Yemen would ensure young women the human rights they deserve.

The Impacts of Child Marriage

Because they are so young, when child brides experience intercourse or pregnancy, it often leads to physical complications. As Sarah Ferguson from UNICEF USA states in an article, “Child marriage increases a girl’s risk of violence and abuse and jeopardizes her health. Sometimes, it’s fatal.”

Yemeni child brides also lose their education rights. Young girls with dreams and aspirations should be able to endure a life of growth and opportunities. Further, husbands and family members expect young girls who marry to know how to handle managing a household. This factor influences parents in pulling daughters out of school to learn how to do so.

In a 2018 CNN interview, a 12-year-old girl named Halima spoke out about how her father forced her sisters to enter marriages and then pressured her to do the same. She spoke about how all of her friends’ families took their daughters out of school to get married. Unfortunately, Halima’s father also pushed her to ignore her desire and passion to become a physician.

The Government’s Failure to Protect Young Women

The government of Yemen has not been able to pass an effective civil agreement to curb child marriage. On February 11, 2009, the Parliament agreed to set the minimum age of marriage at 17. However, the Sharia Legislative Committee overruled that effort. In March 2010, the Parliament redrafted the bill, however, the Sharia Legislative Committee rejected it once again. When asked about why there is no minimum age limit for marriage, the Sharia Legislative Committee stated that having a minimum age for marriage is “un-Islamic.”  Twelve years later, in 2022, there is still no minimum age for marriage in Yemen.

Financial Desperation Leads to Child Marriage

In addition to Sharia law, financial hardship also pushes families to resort to marrying off their daughters. Whether it is because they cannot afford to take care of their daughter or because the family will receive a sum of money, many parents turn to child marriage as a way to ease their financial situations. To this degree, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Charlie Yaxley said at a virtual briefing in May 2020, “We are seeing a growing number of families resorting to harmful coping mechanisms such as begging, child labor and marrying off children to survive.”

The Solution to Child Marriage

Child marriage in Yemen has been an issue for centuries, but currently, there are human rights advocates who are taking strong stances against it. For example, UNICEF delivers life-saving services and supplies to Yemeni child brides. UNICEF also promotes awareness. For example, it does this by sharing stories of young girls who have had to fight for their lives in violent marriages, and how they have been able to survive, and eventually thrive, due to programs promoting their independence.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) are urging governments, including Yemen, to immediately take steps to eradicate the practice. Among other rights violations, the committees specifically argue that child marriage is a setback to women’s rights and the ability to receive an education.

There are also individual human rights advocates who are taking up the issue. Nada al-Ahdal is a young Yemeni woman who escaped child marriage. She created an online video about her story that went viral. After that, she founded the Nada Foundation with the prime minister of Yemen to support young women in child marriages.

She also wrote a book published in several languages that advocates against the practice. Now based in London, she speaks around the world to encourage everyone to fight against the practice. In a 2021 IMIX story about her, she says, “I have met so many brave girls from across the world; Serbia, Pakistan, India, Morocco, Egypt. They are working so hard to change their communities. It’s not just their duty, it’s all of us, all of our duty.”

Looking Ahead: Advocacy for Policy Change

As child brides, young girls in Yemen are having their hopes, dreams and rights dissolved. Child marriage increases the risk of physical and emotional abuse as well as maternal mortality. However, with the help of advocacy within and beyond Yemen, the Yemeni government should eventually glean the power to establish effective change.

– Hayat Nagi
Photo: Flickr

In Yemen, the custom of early marriage just met a vocal challenger.

Going viral last week was a video of 11-year-old Nada al-Ahdal ranting about her parents’ decision to forcibly marry her off to a much older man. “What have the children done wrong? Why do you marry them off like that?” she asks the camera. Her powerful words have touched a delicate nerve amongst Yemenis, some of whom have upheld and continue to practice the custom of early marriange for generations. According to a 2006 joint report by the Ministry of Public Health and Population, the Pan-Arab Project for Family Health and UNICEF, this tradition is still widely practiced: 52% of Yemeni women and girls are married by the time they turn 18.

The recent video highlights Yemen’s history of early marriage laws and the government’s and society’s unwillingness to modernize conceptions of marriage. In 1994, the official age for lawful marriage stood at 15. Five years later, the law was abolished on religious grounds, eliminating a minimum age for early marriage. A brief legislative effort in 2009 to amend the situation was ultimately stalled and aborted, despite that fact that Yemen is party to multiple international treaties that require married couples to be at least 18 years old. Overall, the issue remains to be addressed, leaving countless children susceptible to premature marriage and the social and economic disadvantages that come with it.

Interviews with Yemeni girls and women reveal troubling facts. In rural areas, some girls were married off at the age of 8. Once married, women often have little power in their marriages which can also mean they have limited control over the timing and spacing of children, which increases the risk of reproductive health problems. Early marriage also diminishes the chance that wives will return to school to complete their education, putting them at a distinct social and economic disadvantage. Verbal and physical abuse against women is also prevalent in early marriages in Yemen.

In some ways, Nada al-Ahdal’s words do not just refute the practice of robbing girls of their childhood and sexual purity; they also underline the crucial “cycle of poverty and early marriage” that plagues tens of millions of women around the world. Poverty and early marriage tend to be mutually reinforcing phenomena: girls born into poverty are more likely to have mothers who ‘transmit intergenerational poverty’ and lack social assets and networks. In addition, early marriages greatly increase the chance that young girls will live in poverty. The cycle, parallel to the strong customary tradition of early marriage most prevalent in rural areas, reinforces young women’s roles as undereducated child-bearers with limited social networks.

Nada al-Ahdal eloquently defends her decision to flee from arranged marriage. But behind her words lies Yemen’s ugly reality of women’s disempowerment and its central role in the country’s greater puzzle of poverty reduction and economic growth. As one of the poorest nations on earth and a hotbed of terrorist activity, poverty in Yemen has resulted in a globally destabilizing situation. Instituting a minimum age for marriage could be a key policy for addressing women’s inequality and poverty. In doing so, Yemen would have a more solid foundation for development and more human capital to support its economy.

– Zach Crawford

Sources: BBC, Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), Human Rights Watch, Save the Children’s “Champions for Children” report, Washington Post
Photo: Washington Post