LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Yemen's human rights minister is pushing parliament to ban child marriage, an issue which hit the headlines last year after an eight-year-old girl reportedly died on her wedding night.
“I’ve asked parliament to look at it urgently. Child marriage is one of our top priorities in the ministry at the moment because it affects the most basic rights of children and women,” Hooria Mashhour said.
The minister warned that early marriage not only jeopardised girls’ health and education, but was holding back national development in Yemen – one of the world’s poorest countries.
Yemen’s failure to outlaw child marriage will be under scrutiny on Wednesday when the country comes up for its four-yearly review before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. Britain, Spain and Norway are among countries that have voiced their concerns on the issue ahead of the hearing.
Some 14 percent of girls in Yemen marry before their fifteenth birthday and 52 percent before they reach 18, according to U.N. and Yemeni government data from 2006.
Mashhour said child marriage deprived girls of schooling and opportunities and increased the risks of sexual violence, domestic abuse and death in childbirth.
In September, local and international media reported that a young girl called Rawan had died from internal injuries after marrying a 40-year-old man. Officials in northern Yemen have disputed the reports and insist Rawan is still alive.
“Whether that case is true or not true, our campaign to stop early marriage will continue,” Mashhour told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Sanaa. “Most early marriage happens in rural areas. Even if Rawan did not die many others do, but we rarely hear about them.”
Other cases that have come to light include that of a 12-year-old girl who died three days after she was married to a man twice her age. Her mother said her daughter had been tied up and raped. Another girl the same age committed suicide by throwing herself from the roof of her house after being forced into marriage.
Yemen has no minimum age for marriage. It is illegal for a husband to have sex with his bride until she has reached puberty, but there is no penalty for men who break this law.
The minister said one of the biggest risks for child brides was early pregnancies before their bodies had developed. Yemen has the highest maternal mortality rate in the region.
“I receive reports all the time from families and human rights activists about cases where young girls have got married. Some bleed to death. Some have complications in pregnancy,” Mashhour said.
“We cannot stop these marriages because there is no law, but if I had this tool in my hands I could stop them. There’s nothing we can do without a law.”
The minimum age of marriage used to be 15, but parliament abolished this in 1999 on religious grounds. In 2009 parliament voted to set 17 as the new minimum, but the law was scuppered by a minority of lawmakers who said setting a minimum age went against Islamic principles.
Mashhour is now campaigning to get the bill reintroduced. “I’ve asked the speaker and prime minister to get parliament to do their job and get this law passed. We want an open debate – hopefully in February.
“If there is a debate I think it will be passed. I don’t think at this stage any political party wants to show that they are against human rights because that would be bad for their credibility.”
The minister said she believed public opinion was changing in the country where a popular uprising in 2011 forced veteran president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.
“I think during the uprising we saw public opinion changing in favour of more respect for children’s and women’s rights, partly because women were also leaders of this revolution,” she added.
Poverty is a major factor behind child marriage with families marrying off young daughters to save on the cost of raising them and to obtain dowry money. Many Yemenis also believe early marriage safeguards their daughters' honour by protecting them from rape or pre-marital relationships.
Mashhour stressed the importance of keeping girls in school for tackling child marriage and poverty. Better educated girls tend to marry later and have more say over their lives. They also have healthier, better educated children.
“The government should give much more incentive to poor families to keep their daughters in school for longer,” she said. “We are an underdeveloped country. If we do not give girls the opportunity to have a good education and involve them in society I think we will continue facing these difficulties in development.”
The minister said few child brides had any idea what marriage entailed. “They don’t understand what marriage involves, especially these very young girls,” she added. “They look at it as an opportunity to get gold, money, lovely clothes and they just see it as a party.” But once married, they are often subjected to domestic and sexual violence.
Mashhour said the government would shortly launch a national survey of violence against girls and women – the first of its kind. The study is expected to give a clearer picture of the extent of child marriage and its correlation with domestic violence.