All over the world, the Yemeni female experience is affiliated with the retrogressive practice of child marriages. The international community is bewildered by stories like I am Nujood, age 10 and divorced by Nujood Ali, The Tears of Sheba by Khadija Al-Salami, and Sold by Zana muhsen that tell heart-breaking details of a lost childhood. The World Press Photo award given to Stephanie Sinclair was for a photo of two child brides alongside their husbands in Hajjah (pictured above). Since the start of 2012, according to Dr. Abdurrahman Suwaileh, three young girls in the governorate of Ammran committed suicide to escape their marriages while in another governorate a 13-year-old bride bled to death after her husband had relations with her. Ironically, even Yemen’s most notorious female killer, Aminah Al-Tuhaif, was a child who murdered her husband at the age of 11. Yemeni women of different economic and social backgrounds suffer at the hands of this customary practice. If unwarranted death or emotional turmoil of females is not a deterrent, then it is necessary to distinguish this practice as an obstacle in the path of the educational, medical and judicial advancement of the entire nation.
Child marriages is not just a cultural practice that is discriminatory against women, it is also a contributing factor to Yemen’s high population. According to the UN, 75% of Yemen’s population is under the age of 30 making it the 2nd youngest population in the world. Only 9.3% of all women ages 15 to 49 use a modern form of contraceptive, so it is not surprising that 45.1% of all women aged 20 to 24 gave birth before the age of 20. Moreover, the average Yemeni mother has about 5.5 children. The Mother Mortality Ratio is 430 per 100,000. If the mothers are not risking their own lives, then they are risking the lives of their children, as the estimated number of infant deaths under 12 months (infant mortality rate) in 2009 was 58.4 per 1,000 (USAID). Furthermore, almost 1 million children under the age of five are acutely malnourished and by 2030 the population would be 50 million. Today, with increased conflict and a fragile economy, more than ⅕ of the population is living in conditions of severe food poverty (World Food Programme).
The UNICEF revealed that in 2006, 14% of all females in Yemen were married before the age 15, while 52% were married before the age of 18 (Human Rights Watch). Child marriages remain one of the biggest impediments to female education. Ironically, it is a cause and symptom of this problem. Women’s literacy is 28.5%, compared to 69.5% for males. The Gender Inequality Index ranks Yemen as country number 138 out of 138 with the highest illiteracy rates among females. Only 5% of women who finish high school become income earners. These statistics are astounding if viewed from western eyes, however, for Yemeni women it is nothing more than a deteriorating reality as more than 16% of the population lives with less than $1 a day.
Many NGOs and Yemeni female activists are aware of the challenges standing in the path of Yemeni women. Shortly after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, journalist Tawakkol Karman rallied on the streets of Yemen on December 10th demanding that this cultural practice be changed and that a minimum marriage age be set. Hooria Mashoor, Minister of Human Rights in the current Interim Government, has been a lifelong activist against child marriages and has worked previously with the Women’s National Committee (WNC) to draft a law that set the marriage age to 17. Jamela Saleh Al-Raiby, Deputy Minister of Public Health and Population, shared with numerous agencies her concerns and opposition to the practice. Oxfam, USAID, WNC, Yemen Women Union (YWU), UNICEF, Equality Now and WRA-Yemen (9 governmental institutions, seven NGOs and five Elected Individuals) failed in changing the reality of young (and poor) Yemeni girls. It is important that this transitional period provide transparent laws that clearly dictate the rights of women.
Child Marriages and Law:
Prior to the Unification of 1990, the conditions of women was dichotomous due to their political realities. In the Marxist South, the PDRY considered women workers with equal rights as men, as they abolished polygamy (except in cases where the wife was sterile), and prohibited talaq (man initiated Islamic divorce) which became strictly a court matter. On the other hand, in the North, the marriage age, for males and females, was legally set at 15 years old; however, it was not enforced. At times, when a family matter did not seem to be explained in the law, the adjudication was in the hands of the qadis or judges. Overall, in both parts of the country, the laws were hard to enforce over the entire territory as both governments never had full control.
After 1990, the laws that of the northern part of the country started to dominate and the age of marriage was set at 15. After the 1994 civil war, the Islah party gained many seats in the parliament and many of their members became influential in the government. In the following period, the constitution changed Shari’a from al-masdar al-ra’isi (the main source of legislation) to al-masdar al-waheed (the only source of legislation). Most importantly the marriage age limit was abolished on the basis that it was “un-Islamic” (other Islamic countries, like Kuwait and Bahrain set the marriage age to 16 while the UAE decided on 18).
In 2009, a movement against Child marriages gained influence and a bill was drafted to set the marriage age at 17-years-old. According to the Yemeni constitution, this process works as so; a draft has to be made then only the government must hand it to the Legal Committee of the House of Representatives. After consultation, the committee has two options, either to discuss the bill directly in the hall amongst all 301 members or to form a smaller committee from the parliament according to their blocs. In this case, the Legal Committee chose to do the latter; however, the smaller committee could not agree on a solution. Therefore, the bill was passed on to an additional committee that was to discuss the draft according to the Shari’a. If the bill was passed then the approval of the president would be necessary before the law is amended, but in this case, the Shari’a Committee shut it down in 2010 after handing in a 15-page report arguing against the creation of such law. Now in 2012, female activists are trying to change this law again.
The situation in Yemen remains highly unstable; political and economic problems take center stage. It is up to female activists and policy makers to push for changes. A new constitution will be drafted, and it is essential that this new constitution clearly sets a marriage age (recommended at 16) while outlining punishments for violators. Furthermore, the new government has to earn credibility otherwise the law will not be adhered to. These laws would be fruitless if women are not included in the process of lawmaking. As of now, only one women (and one political party), Awras Naji (GPC), is a member of the parliament. The process of changing the marriage age is a heavy burden on one women. The interim government is already on a promising path as it appointed three female ministers. Along with these positive moves, Yemeni women need to learn about their rights to vote and their capacity to change their own futures.
While we wait for these changes to take place, women can defend themselves within the Shari’a framework. In Islam, Nikkah (marriage contract) is an agreement between two parties with mutual rights and obligations. A wedding requires ijab (man asking for marriage), qubul (agreement from the female), two male witnesses and a ma’dun. The parents of a young bride are accountable for what happens to their daughter; however, some loose restrictions can be placed on who can be a witness. For example, a requirement would be that the two witnesses need to be ethical individuals who are not paid for their presence. Furthermore, it is the duty of the Mad’un to make sure that the girl is fully aware of her responsibility as a wife and how her life will change and must seek clear indication of her acceptance. The state can restrict the prevalence of child marriages of requiring a civil registration at least a month before a marriage - this can require the signature of both parties. Finally, within the female islamic prerogative, a girl can ask for the creation of a marriage contract which can protect their current and future interest. Both, the Shafi’i and Zaydi schools allow the creation of conditions within a marriage as long as they don’t alter its main purpose. This means a girl can require that she finishes her education, work, gain proper medical care and even discusses custody of children after a divorce.
The reality is that Yemen’s conservative traditions are not legislated, however, laws and cultural practices sanction sexual discrimination. Historically, Yemen is a tribal society where kinship is indispensible. If we are to follow Lévi-Strauss' theory on kinship, then marriage in tribal societies is an exchange of women between men to build societal ties. It is another way to extend our influence and show our association. The role of society in preventing child marriage is undervalued because collective pressure is vital in changing traditions. The lack of public acceptability can act as a deterrent. This can start with affluent and influential families and the rest may follow. Yemenis need to know that democracy or even stable peace is unattainable without ensuring the wellbeing of half of their population; women’s rights is a primary building block towards moving forward.