4 Nov 2010

Child 'marriages' still widespread in Yemen despite new legislation limiting the age of marriage

The Media Line - August 9, 2009

Child Marriages Still Dog Yemen

by Rachelle Kliger

Children in Yemen are being forced into wedlock at a young age, because a law that limits the age of marriage has not been put into practice.

Child marriages are still widespread in Yemen, despite new legislation limiting the age of marriage.

Six months ago the Yemeni government passed a law that limited the minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls to 17.

Under the law, parents who married off their children would face a year in jail or be fined the equivalent of about $500.

But Yemeni children’s rights campaigners say the law has never been applied and child marriages remain just as common as they were six months ago.

"Nothing has changed, because the law is still pending and has not been made operative," Ahmad Al-Qurashi, director of the Sanaa-based Seyaj Organization for the Protection of Children, told The Media Line.

"It was anticipated that the state president would issue a decision about the law, but this never happened," Al-Qurashi said. "It became part of a battle among radical, extremist, Islamist and tribal forces who considered the law an attack against religion and against the Prophet Muhammad."

Child marriages, particularly for girls, are a long-standing problem in Yemen, where parents strive to marry off their daughters early in order to protect girl’s honor.

The problem is especially common in rural areas where education is lacking and the economic situation is poor, but there are no accurate statistics on the number of child marriages.

Seyaj estimates there are currently tens of thousands of underage girls married in Yemen.

The problem is rarely discussed and is entrenched in religious and cultural norms.

Proponents of child marriage mention the Prophet Muhammad, because according to traditional sources, his wife ‘Aisha was nine or ten years old when their marriage was consummated.

But rights advocates say it is a mistake to consider marrying a child a religious or customary obligation based on this.

Even when the law was being passed six months ago, Al-Qurashi told The Media Line that events suggested its implementation would not be easy.

MPs who opposed the law on religious grounds mobilized their supporters to demonstrate against it in the capital.

Al-Qurashi said his organization is now incapable of launching an awareness campaign, as long as there is no law in place to back it up.

"If we launch a campaign while these parties are voicing opposition, we’ll only turn more people against us and it might even draw competing campaigns, aiming to frustrate the law," he said. "So we prefer to delay any campaigns until the law is finally approved and becomes operative."

Several cases of child brides have drawn international attention, increasing pressure on Sanaa to make the practice illegal.

The story of Nujoud ‘Ali, a 10-year-old Yemenite girl, hit international headlines last year, as she independently sought a divorce from her 30-year-old husband who she said was beating and raping her.

Child-rights organizations say young marriages deprive children of their childhood, especially when girls are forced into motherhood at such a young age.

Under the new law, no child under the age of 17 will be married, unless their marriage is seen by a judge to be in the best interest of the child.

Also, the law stipulates that no marriage can take place, at any age, without the consent of the woman.

The thinking behind the law is that it would promote better education and health for both men and women in Yemen and will help development in a country where an estimated 70 percent of the female population is illiterate.

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