Hundreds of Yemen women, veiled in the black niqab, demonstrated outside parliament on Tuesday in support of a fiercely debated bill that would ban the marriage of girls under the age of 17. According to recent studies, roughly half of Yemeni girls are married before turning 18 – and in some villages, they are wed at only half that old.
The government has enough votes to pass the child marriage bill, but President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ruling party is caught in a delicate dance with the religious opposition.
The poorest country in the Arab world and a focus of international concerns about Islamist militancy, Yemen is held together in no small measure by the religious and conservative tribal leaders that govern its rural areas. Without these leaders’ support for the child marriage law, which many of them see as clashing with Islamic law, the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) could falter.
“We have a parliamentary majority and the support of the president. We therefore have the ability to pass the law,” says Sameer Radha, a member of the president’s ruling party, standing outside parliament here in the Yemeni capital.
But in an interview with the Monitor, Dr. Radha says that President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress, is waiting for the support of the main opposition – the religiously conservative Islah party.
“If we wanted to go to war, for example, we could pass it straight through parliament, but this issue is much more sensitive as it is related to sharia law,” he explains. If the GPC moves ahead without Islah, he adds, the opposition party will brand the ruling party as “full of infidels.”
Protester drawn by Facebook invokes prophet Muhammad
Child marriage is widespread in Yemen, particularly in rural areas, where girls as young as eight are married off by poor parents who see marriage as financial security for their children.
A study carried out in 2008 by the Gender Development Research and Studies Centre at Sanaa University found that 52 percent of Yemeni girls are married before turning 18, while a 2007 study by the International Centre for Research on Women put the figure at 48 percent. The latter study put Yemen 13th in the world for child marriage; the problem is also widespread in South Asia, especially India – where one child bride made headlines recently by saying, "I won't."
Yemen's movement against child marriage gathered strength after the 2008 furor over the story of Nojoud Mohammed Ali, a 10-year-old Yemeni girl
who managed to divorce her 30-year-old husband. Last fall, the issue resurfaced, with the highly publicized story of Fawziya Abdullah Youssef, a 12-year-old girl who died in childbirth after three days of labor.
“It’s a crime against human rights when a child gets married,” said Roaa Alef, a teenage Yemeni activist, during the protest on Tuesday. “There is a lack of education among parents on what they are doing to their children when they marry them off. The girls drop out of school and then has no opportunities; they’re stuck.”
Moheed Adel, a student who found out about the protest on Facebook, agreed.
“The religious groups argue that the Prophet [Muhammed] married a girl between 7 and 8 years old and therefore this is the acceptable age for marriage. But this was a divine act, not something to be followed by society,” he said.
Bill proposes big fine, a year in jail
The proposed law stipulates that parents who marry off their daughters before the age of 17 could face a hefty fine and the possibility of one year in jail.
In February 2009, the bill succeeded in winning a parliamentary majority but religiously conservative lawmakers said the legislation was un-Islamic, and sent it back to parliament’s constitutional committee for review. A decision is expected next month but supporters of the law are pessimistic. Several of Yemen’s most influential clerics issued a religious decree on Sunday opposing the ban, including members of the parliamentary committee.
Government officials are reluctant to challenge religious and conservative tribal leaders, including Yemen’s most influential cleric, Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, whose endorsements are needed to hold power in the impoverished republic.
Radha, a member of the parliamentary subcommittee on health, has been trying to educate religiously conservative lawmakers on the dangers of child marriage.
“Sharia law doesn’t specify the age and leaves it open for health specialists to decide the appropriate age for marriage,” he told the Monitor as a circle of protesters formed around him in support.
“Although a girl might reach puberty as young as nine, her body won’t be ready for childbirth until she is older,” he added. “The subcommittee on health is still gathering research from hospitals all around the country which cites complications such as stillborn babies and the maternal death of young mothers.”
'In my village, everyone marries at 9'
Today’s demonstration was a counterprotest after opponents of the bill came out yesterday to show support for the clerics’ denunciations of the child marriage ban on Sunday.
Some Yemeni analysts say the government is delaying passing the bill in order to label the opposition party as extremist and to keep the opposition Islah distracted from other issues such as corruption, unemployment and poverty.
Most protesters who showed up today, including members of the Yemen’s Women National Committee, appealed to President Ali Abdullah Saleh to disregard opposition and sign the bill.
But some Yemenis in support of child marriage came to the protest to argue with supporters of the proposed law.
“There is no problem with child marriage in Yemen,” said Lotf Saleh, a 20-year-old who married his wife when she was 9. “In my village everyone marries at 9; it is forbidden to be friends with girls in our society so we have to marry them young.”