The Reason For Yemen's Child-Bride Problem Isn't What You'd Expect

Yemen’s child bride problem is back in the spotlight following the reported death of Rawan, an eight-year-old girl, as a result of injuries sustained on her wedding night. In response, Yemen’s Human Rights Minister Huriyah Mashour called for action: “Many child marriages take place every year in Yemen. It’s time to end this practice.” Mashour is seeking to draft a new law for parliament raising the minimum age of marriage for girls to 18 years.

The recent history of Yemen has been fraught with violence and instability. Shortly after the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, the country descended into a brief civil war in 1994. Unified Yemen was ruled by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and separatist movements remained active throughout his rule. In February 2012, Saleh resigned in response to massive protests calling for democratic reform. This period saw Yemeni women take an increasingly active role in the protests against Saleh’s regime. Since Saleh’s resignation, the country has been going through a tenuous political transition to establish a new constitution and elected government.

The problem of child marriage is not confined to Yemen. It can be found across different continents, cultures, and religions. However, one thread ties these experiences together, and that is poverty. According to Human Rights Watch, child marriage is most prevalent in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia that are “characterized by persistent poverty and low levels of economic development.” The trend is certainly discernible in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East. The country is “beset by high unemployment, widespread corruption, and rampant human rights abuses.” As a result of the economic situation, these marriages often take the shape of a commercial transaction as the father seeks the dowry payments as a means to lighten his family’s financial burdens.

Perhaps the most well-known story from Yemen is that of Nujood Ali who, after fleeing her abusive husband in 2008, became the country’s youngest divorcee at the age of 10. Arwa, another Yemeni girl, suffered a similar experience when she was married off to a man in his forties. When her father was asked why he was willing to marry his daughter off at such a young age, he said, “"He gave me 30,000 rial ($150) and promised another 400,000 ($2,000). I was really in need of money and thought it was a solution for the family.”

Nadim, who married his 12-year-old daughters to older men in order to pay off his creditors, is now an advocate against underage marriage, and he warned other parents: “I’d advise any father, mother, or brother not to rush to marry their girls like I did, because that is ignorant.” These child marriages perpetuate the cycle of poverty as the young girls are deprived of opportunities for education and work, face greater health risks, and are more likely to be victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

A number of other factors also enable this practice to persist unabated. In the past, the Yemeni government failed to pass legislation setting the minimum age of marriage for minors. Conservative leaders succeeded in blocking a ban on child marriage with the weak claim that such a move would go against the country’s culture and religion. This claim is baseless. In contrast to Yemen, while many countries in the Middle East and North Africa recognize sharia as a source of law these nations have set minimum age limits for marriage. In Iraq and Egypt the minimum age of marriage is 18 years.

The political situation in Yemen remains tenuous, and the government does not have control over many parts of its own territory. In such an environment, women and children are susceptible to abuse and exploitation. However, this political transition provides an opportunity for reform in support of greater rights for women and children. The number of female activists in Yemen has grown as a result of the protests in 2011. Although they face many obstacles, these are positive signs of increased awareness and a growing public debate on these issues that affect many Yemeni girls and women.

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Elizabeth Rghebi

I recently received my M.A. from Columbia University in Middle Eastern studies. My research interests focus on Arab politics, especially in the Levant and North Africa.

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