In Yemen, 52% of girls are married before the age of 18. This nightmare is far from fantastical dreams of love and marriage, meeting ‘Prince Charming’ and living ‘happily ever after.’ Rather, many Yemeni girls are forced to marry men double their age.
Prior to recent progress, Yemen had no legal minimum age for the marriage of its citizens. In 1999, parliament abolished a former law that made marriage before the age of 15 illegal, and in 2009, attempts to reinstate a legal marriage age failed. Both of the aforementioned incidents occurred when legal groups cited “religious grounds,” arguing that a minimum marriage age would be contrary to Islamic law. However, Abdulwahab al-Anisi, who currently serves as the secretary general of Yemen’s largest Islamist party, has voiced his party’s willingness support the new law.
The average age of child brides in rural Yemen is 12 to 13-years-old, and the death of brides as young as 8-years-old have been reported after their wedding night or child birth. This is the horrific reality for young brides forced into child marriage, many of whom are unlikely to have knowledge of intercourse prior to their wedding night.
However, new constitutional proposals address gender equality and women’s rights, as well as the suggestion to make marriage before the age of 18 illegal for both genders. The proposed Child’s Rights Law was submitted to Prime Minister Mohammad Basindawa on April 27 and would require the verification of age for both the man and the woman when filing for a marriage license.
The draft also suggests punishment for perpetrators of forced child marriage, providing criminal penalties of two months to one year in prison. Any persons who draw up a marriage contract with the knowledge that one or more persons is under the age of 18 could face fines of up to $1,860. Prison sentences and fines are also suggested for witnesses, parents, or guardians who know that at least one person filing for the marriage license is under 18.
It will be long and difficult process to change a practice with such deep roots and serious social implications, but Belkis Willie, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher, believes that, “a law setting an age and criminalizing is a first step, and then a few high profile criminal cases against parents and spouses will be key.”
Organizations such as HRW are urging the Yemeni government to expedite the passing of this law, which would help protect thousands of girls who are victims of early and forced marriage. Forced marriage, in turn, often results in girls being prevented from completing their education and makes them more vulnerable to marital rape and domestic abuse.
“The prime minister should provide strong leadership to get the minimum age for marriage and the child rights law on the books,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director for HRW. “There’s no excuse for further delays in passing this desperately needed legislation.”
– Madisson Barnett