The Arab Spring: an opportunity for women’s rights
The 54-page report documents the lifelong damage to girls who are forced to marry young. It seizes on the opportunity the Arab Springs brings to women’s rights in Yemen and brings the law defining a legal age for marriage back to the table.
“Yemen’s political crisis has left issues such as child marriage at the bottom of the political priority list,” said Nadya Khalife, women’s rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. “But now is the time to move on this issue, setting the minimum age for marriage at 18, to ensure that girls and women who played a major role in Yemen’s protest movement will also contribute to shaping Yemen’s future.”
Over the past months, demonstrators called for a range of reforms, including measures to guarantee equality between women and men. Banning child marriage – a major cause of discrimination and abuse against girls and women – should be a priority for reform, Human Rights Watch said.
The Yemeni government and United Nations data show that approximately 14 percent of girls in Yemen are married before age 15, and 52 percent are married before age 18. In some rural areas, girls as young as 8 are married. Girls are sometimes forced to marry much older men, while boys are seldom forced into child marriages.
Aisha is a mother of seven. Today is she nearly 37 years old but remembers when she was first married off to her cousin at the age of 12. “It was a family decision because we come from a wealthy family and they wanted to keep the money within,” she said remembering her simple wedding a quarter of a century ago. She remembers the music and the white dress they had to use pins to fit around her thin childlike body. Although her husband was not much older at 18, he already knew what intercourse meant and decided to go all the way.Barely 14 years old, Aisha had her first daughter; Najla. “I am so ashamed to say this but sometimes I feel I don’t love her,” she said while looking aimlessly at her hands.
“Even today I feel that my motherhood came with my second-born child whom I had when I was 17.”Her biggest regret today is this guilty feeling that Najla is not her own, especially since her first-born was mostly raised and taken care of by the older women in the family, often her mother-in-law. All her daughters and sons have now had the opportunity to grow into adulthood before they were married off.
Even Najla got the chance to complete her university education before she got married last year.“I cannot turn back the time, and for me you can say that today I am happily married,” said Aisha. “I was fortunate that my husband wasn’t abusive as such although I feel that I was deprived of an important phase of my life. This is why I made sure does not happen to my children.”There are many women in Yemen who suffer what Aisha went through 25 years ago. She knows and hears of little girls still married off at vulnerable ages, some, like her, to keep the wealth in the family, and others because of poverty or cultural reasons.
Yemeni girls and women told Human Rights Watch that marrying early had cut short their education, and some said they had been subjected to marital rape and domestic abuse.
The report is based on field research in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, between August and September 2010, including interviews with more than 30 girls and women who were married as children, members of nongovernmental organizations, and staff members at the Health and Education Ministries.
A Yemeni study found that many parents remove girls in rural areas from school at age nine to help in the house, raise their younger siblings, and sometimes to get married. Almost all of the girls and women interviewed said that once they were married, they were unable to continue or complete their education, and many had children soon after marriage.
Girls and women interviewed also said that they were often exposed to gender-based violence, including domestic abuse and sexual violence. Some girls and women told Human Rights Watch that their husbands, in-laws, and other members of the husband’s household verbally or physically assaulted them. Married girls and women in Yemen often live with their husband’s extended family.
The Yemeni government actually has regressed in addressing the issue. In 1999 Yemen’s 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. However, a group of lawmakers, contending that reinstating a minimum age would be contrary to Sharia [Islamic] law, used a parliamentary procedure to stall the draft law indefinitely.
“Girls should not be forced to be wives and mothers,” Khalife said. “As Yemen undergoes political change, leaders should seize the opportunity to correct an injustice that does enormous harm and set the country on a new course of social justice, including equality for women and girls.”