As Yemen prepares to draft its new constitution now that NDC representatives have laid down the ground work, rights activists were pleased to learn that Yemen intends to honour its commitment toward civil liberties by entrenching values such as freedom of thought, expression, gender equality and women’s rights directly into the constitution.
In line with child rights lobbyists’ wishes and Yemen Human Rights Minister Hooriah Mashour’s recommendations, one recommendation made by NDC representatives is to criminalize child marriage by setting 18 as the minimum required age for anyone to marry.
Although such decision is bound to generate a backlash amid religious leaders as such a law would come to contradict Sharia law, activists have said they are confident this time a law will be passed.
As per noted by NDC representatives, the “Child Marriage Proposal,” will suggest for the constitution to set the minimum age for either gender to marry at 18, as well as decide on an appropriate set of punishments for any transgression, especially in relations to girls.
Child marriage has long been a contentious matter in Yemen due to the country strong Islamic tradition and tribal heritage. Under Islamic law a girl can marry as soon as she becomes of age, both physically and psychologically. Since neither the Quran nor the Hadiths have established a numeral age limitation, clerics have so far estimated that parents should be left free to pass judgement on age appropriateness; a theory, rights activists have argued have left girls open to abuse.
According to a government study dating 2006, 52% of Yemeni girls marry before the age of 18, and 14% before the age of 15. On some very rare instances girls as young as 8 have married men significantly older.
It is important to note that such cases are rare and therefore do not constitute a norm. More importantly, while 15 can be considered a young age to enter into a marriage, other countries, such as the United States of America for example have allowed their citizens to enter into valid marital unions at an even younger age. In the state of New Hampshire “A female between the age of 13 and 17 years and a male between the age of 14 and 17 years can be married only with the permission of their parent (guardian) and a waiver.”
When speaking of child marriage, it is crucial to make a clear distinction in between child abuse and age appropriateness. While a young girl should never, for quite obvious reasons, be allowed to marry a man decades her elder, preventing young couples from fulfilling their desire to form a family might be considered not only cruel but contrary to Islam.
Moreover, recent so-called child marriage scandals in Yemen have in the past year proven all to be false flags. Back in July 2013, young Nada al-Ahdal (an 11 year-old schoolgirl) shocked the world by blasting in a video posted on YouTube her parents, claiming they tried to force marry her to a much older man. Within days of the uploading of her video, Nada' story went viral, with news organizations across the world vilifying her parents for having attempted to sell out their little girl to a man whose moral stoop so low he would consider a marital union with a child.
As it turned out, Nada’s claims were baseless, only motivated by a desire to attract media’s attention.
A few weeks after Nada’s report, another Yemeni newspaper alleged an 8 year-old had died from internal bleeding on her wedding night. Mohammad Radman, a local journalist and online publisher was first to break the story to the local press.
At the time he claimed that Rawan had been buried in secret by her parents. Again, the story was later debunked. Following a thorough investigation it was established that Rawan was very much alive and not in the slightest married or engaged to be married. Born from ill gossiping and irresponsible journalism, the story was nevertheless picked as truth by foreign media. Splashed across many headlines Yemen came to be known as the country of child abuse where parents give away their daughters for a few dollars.
With child marriage on activists’ agenda, Human Rights Watch noted in its annual report “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.”
Realistically even if Yemen constitutional panel decides to set a marriage age limit, implementation on the ground and potential prosecution could prove difficult, especially given the social and religious ramifications.
As per noted by religious figures, the state should focus on alleviating poverty, a factor which has proven to be pertinent to early marriages, as well as focus on education.