Child Marriage (2005)

Child Marriages

Posted in: Culture & Society: Yemen Observer
Written By: Sama'a Al-Hamdani
Article Date: Jul 31, 2005 - 12:28:00 AM

Anyone who lives in Yemen must notice the number of Yemeni children married off before the age of eighteen.  This article is dedicated to early marriage in Yemen and its effect on both the individuals concerned and society. 
"It's a natural thing in Yemen. I was even older than other girls I knew. I was lucky too because my husband was young; he was only 19 when I married him. I knew that I had to get married, but I didn't want him for a husband," said Aminah Al-Tuhaif, 21 (a notorious prisoner sentenced to death at the age of 14 for murdering her husband, for more on Aminah click here). In all cultures, marriage is seen as a joyful event in which the hopes and values of the community are passed on to a future generation. Yet for it to be a success, marriage requires both harmony and unity between spouses. Most marriages in Yemen are an arrangement between two families and the wife is usually under the age of 18.
There are many reasons why parents and families are encouraged to marry their children away at a young age, and any of these reasons originate within the constructs of the society.

Chastity and proven virginity are still considered extremely important, to the extent that a family will abandon a girl completely if her reputation is sullied. In some situations, murder is considered a solution if a girl looses her virginity before marriage. In Sana'a, a girl disappeared for three days.  After searching for her, her family received a call from soldiers who claimed that she had been found being "playful", so they put her in prison.  (Tears of Sheba, Khadija Al-Salami P140-141). When her parents went to collect her, her hair had been shaved off and she was sobbing uncontrollably.  She kept screaming, "They raped me!"
Her parents wondered, had their daughter provoked the men or had she been minding her own business? In the end, the truth of the matter is that it made no real difference. She was no longer a virgin.

In Yemen, no one would ever take her for a wife, and the accusation of loose morals attached to the girl would blacken the family name for several years. So, the family imprisoned the girl in her bedroom and fed her through a small hole. After months of captivity, she began vomiting blood.  A few days later she collapsed on the floor and died.

While society degrades women who are not chaste, it equally praises and eulogizes proven virtue. Yemeni husbands feel that their manhood is complete if their wives are virgins when they first have sex. In some areas of Yemen, the bloodstained sheet is displayed after the wedding night to prove the purity of the bride. Early marriage is considered the only way to ensure that a family will have the honor of a stained sheet to show off their daughter's chastity.  The need to protect a girl's virginity leads to many parents marrying off their daughters at an extremely young age, for if a girl is raped, then the crime is committed not only against the girl or woman, but also against her father, husband, and brothers. (Further reading on female virginity and mahood: Fatima Mernissi's Women's Rebellion and Islamic Memory)

A girl in a traditional Yemeni house is married off at a young age because the family believes that marriage is a way to build the family (for more on this read Marcel Mauss The Gift and Gayle Rubin's The Taffic in Women), but also to prevent unwanted sexual advances.  Early marriage prevents premarital sex thereby protecting the chastity of the girl. In our society, women are usually viewed as a burden on the family, especially if a family has many children. Fathers are always proud to boast of numerous male offspring, but not so with the females. Many men still think that a woman's main function is merely to give birth and take care of the household.

Many families seek husbands for their daughters at an early age because they fear they may end up spinsters at the ripe age of 25. Since women are only biologically capable of having children for a certain period of their lives, girls are married young to enable them to bare numerous children; a feat considered worthy of praise and respect. The average size of a Yemeni family is extremely high, with 7.4 children per mother. This directly contributes to a low level of development in Yemen, rapid population growth, a lack of jobs, poor water resources, and weak social protection. A large number of children in a family contributes to poverty. Yemen's population stands at 20 million, 50 percent of whom live under the poverty line, earning less than $2 dollars per day. Thirteen percent of the population  border the poverty line. Thus, parents find themselves forced financially to marry their daughters off at a young age. They do so, either in the hope of giving them a better life, or of reducing the number of mouths in the family to feed. (Forum on Marriage and the Rights of Women and Girls, Sept. 17, 2004, UK). 

Not all Yemeni parents are necessarily influenced by the aforementioned factors and may simply believe that their daughters are better off with a regular male guardian. Early marriage is a way to ensure that a female is protected, or under control, and to make sure that all household responsibilities are apportioned. Overall, early marriage is widespread throughout all Yemeni governorates and 82% of Yemeni women are married before the age of 20.