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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Yemen Takes a Step Toward Law Ending Child Marriage

Human Rights Watch report on child marriages in Yemen, posted in Dec. 2013.

Yemen has taken a step toward outlawing child marriages.

After about a year of work on finding a new system of government and to pave the way for general elections in 2014, a national conference of Yemeni political, social and religious groups this week issued its proposals for a new constitution.

They include proposals for freedom of thought, expression, gender equality and women’s rights. And one of the recommendations suggests making it illegal for anyone under 18 to marry.

Under a subheading “Child Marriage,” the proposals for the constitution say the minimum age for either gender to marry is 18, while specifying there will be punishments for anyone transgressing the requirement that girls must be 18.

Belkis Wille, a Human Rights Watch researcher, linked to a copy of the Arabic language report on her Twitter account on Thursday as well as to her statement responding to the development:

Child marriage is a major problem in Yemen, where according to UN and Yemeni government data from 2006, 52 percent of girls are married - often to much older men - before age 18, and 14 percent before 15. If the girls don’t want to marry, their families generally force them. Girls who marry often drop out of school, are more likely to die in childbirth, and face a higher risk of physical and sexual abuse than women who marry at 18 or later. Until now, Yemen has been one of the few countries in the region without any minimum age for marriage.

Ms. Wille and others at the rights organization welcomed the development, while acknowledging there was still much to be done before it takes effect. There were also questions of how well it will be enforced or whether tribal or religious groups will heed the law.

Ms. Wille noted that the constitution must still be drafted and then be made into provisions that will be acceptable to all Yemenis. “Now the heavy lifting begins for Yemen,” she said.

In an email on Thursday, Ms. Wille wrote that a draft law enshrining the minimum age of 18 and criminalizing marriage under that age must be presented to Parliament, scheduled for debate and then subjected to a vote.

“Even if a law is passed, in the governorates where it is common, it will take years of work with the communities in order to end the practice,” she said. “But 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.”

Attempts have been made before to address the child marriage issue in Yemen, but failed.

In 1999 the Parliament, citing religious grounds, abolished the legal minimum age for marriage for girls and boys, which was then 15. In 2009, a majority in Parliament voted to set 17 as the minimum age, but a group of lawmakers, contending that reinstating a minimum age would be contrary to Islamic law, used a procedure to stall it indefinitely, as Human Rights Watch said in a special report in 2011.

The Associated Press reported in 2010 that a religious decree issued by Yemen’s most influential Muslim leaders declared supporters of that ban on child brides to be apostates.

Human Rights Watch said in its annual report released this week that there could be change, citing some of the horrors that the practice has had on young girls being forced into marriage with mostly much older men. It said the national dialogue presented an important opportunity to secure protection for women and girls’ rights.

“Child marriage remains widespread with doctors and the media reporting the deaths of child brides as young as 8 years old following their wedding night or childbirth,” it said.

In 2008, my colleague, Robert F. Worth, wrote a feature about child marriage in Yemen, quoting a study by Sana University that said that the average age of marriage in Yemen’s rural areas is 12 to 13, and that the country, at the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.
The plight of young girls forced into marriage was also documented in a project called Too Young to Wed that took more than a decade of work in Asia, Africa and the Middle East by the American photographer, Stephanie Sinclair.

Yemen was among the countries featured as having a high rate of marriage of girls, as Ms. Sinclair explained in this video.

Stephanie Sinclair, the photographer, speaks about her National Geographic feature on child marriages.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.