Why are we still debating child marriages in Yemen?

Published on 3 April 2014 in View Point
Nadia Al-Sakkaf (author)

Nadia Al-Sakkaf


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I can’t begin to understand why we are still trying to convince some people in Yemen that child marriages should be banned!

Since 2008, with Nujood, the nine year old and perhaps one of the youngest divorcees in the world, this has become a public opinion case. Yet, almost seven years later we are still struggling to get consensus on this issue in Yemen. When it comes to the core issue, everyone agrees that girls should not be married off until they are “ready.” When identifying what “ready” means, we start drifting apart.

At the time, I learned that the term “early marriage” is not accurate, because the term “early” is relative. For example, some Yemeni families would consider that marrying off their daughters before they complete university is “early,” while others would have no problem doing so before that.

That’s when we came up with the term child marriages. No one in their right minds would openly agree to marrying off a child, but we are stuck at the definition of “child.” If it is okay for a 14-year-old boy to work, why not get a 14-year-old girl married?

Arguing back and forth, and while attempting to draft a law to regulate marriages, the sheikhs who did not want to put an age limit came up with the term “ready to bed.” In their point of view, a woman is reduced to this. Even then, when we started detailing how a woman might be judged to be ready for a marital relationship we got stuck and reached nowhere. That’s because being “ready” is also a relative term, just like “early.” And we have seen incidents where men considered girls as young as nine years old to be ready material for marital relationships.

Today, after fighting so many battles against child marriages, we achieved a preliminary success through the outcomes of the National

Dialogue Conference, which stipulates 18 as the minimum age for marriage.

It is unlikely that this law will be included in the constitution, which is fair. Yet, I am afraid that those standing against legislating a minimum age for marriage will circumvent it and ignore yet another outcome of the NDC outcomes that are already being breached.

And even if we do get a law passed, it alone will not solve the problem because many current and potential victims of premature marriages don’t have birth certificates. Moreover, parents and judges responsible for endorsing the marriage could easily conspire together to find a way around this law. We know how easy it is in Yemen to forge documents and bend laws.

What we really need is mercy and compassion. We need the parents, especially the fathers, to love their daughters and nurture them so that they grow healthily and become good mothers and productive members of society. Unfortunately, many Yemeni fathers are disconnected from their children’s lives. They have no idea about their schooling careers, what they like or dislike, their health issues, or whether or not they are happy.  

We need a law to criminalize child marriages and we need a strong executive authority to implement this law. But more importantly, we need a conscience and we need mercy instilled in the hearts of those responsible for this crime, and that is something no law or government can achieve. Rather, it is up to the people of Yemen themselves to make this happen.