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In Yemen, Battling To Ban The Forced Marriage Of Girls

Because of outdated tradition and economics, 14% of Yemeni girls are married off before their 15th birthday. But since the Arab spring, a movement is growing to stop this.

A young girl in Taiz, Yemen
A young girl in Taiz, Yemen
François-Xavier Trégan

SANAA — “Eighteen years old! Eighteen years old!”

This is what the members of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference shout as they run up and down the hallway in celebration. Their conference has just approved an initiative to make the legal age for marriage 18.

“This recommendation will become law, and then it will be one of the most important in our history because it’ll save our children’s lives,” declares committee president Rawa Othman.

An estimated 14% of Yemeni girls are married by force before their 15th birthdays — often sold by their poor families for cash — and 52% of girls here are married before they turn 18. So it’s no wonder that news of the vote was taken as a sort of cultural revolution.

“The will to live free has won today against the fear that some want to force on us in the name of Allah and religion,” says Othman, who is nevetheless only cautiously optimistic that it will survive the final session of the conference.

Given Yemen’s history, a sense of caution is appropriate. In 2009, a similar project aimed to make 17 the minimum marriage age, but its final version was never ratified. Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour remembers the sideline political arrangements between Islamists and the party of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh to bury the project.

Four years later, the minister is starting the fight once again. “The Arab Spring has changed a lot of things,” Mashhour says. “We’re now trying to establish the foundations of a rule of law. It might take several years, but at least we’re trying. The Prime Minister pledged to legislate the issue of early marriages. But let’s be realistic: Even if a law was approved, it would be difficult to apply it. Customs and traditions are important factors, of course, but the main reason behind it remains poverty.”

A cycle driven by poverty

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arabian peninsula, and also one of the poorest in the world. Almost 47% of the population live on fewer than $2 a day. It has the world’s third highest rate of malnutrition, and half of its inhabitants are hit by food insecurity.

The map of early marriages fits that of poverty. Abdullah Raimi comes from Raymah, in the Western mountains. Like many others, he left the misery of his village to try his luck in the capital city of Sanaa. He collects plastic and metal cans and sells them by the kilo. He lives with his wife, two daughters and two sons in a couple of square meters in the north of the city. It is a windowless unsanitary slum made out of concrete blocks and sheet metal.

“I had my daughter married when she was 12,” he explains. “I asked her future husband for 600,000 rials ($3,000). He accepted. I married her off for the money. That sum represented a lot and was supposed to help us.”

A year later, after her husband turned violent on her, his daughter Amina was granted a divorce. She is now 17. “I didn't want to get married, but I had to, for the money,” she says. “The only thing I wanted was to finish school, go to university. I wasn’t so lucky. I'm a victim. But I believe I’m now more able to control my own life. If I had a daughter, I’d keep her close and I’d wait for her to finish her studies before marrying her off.”

Ahmed Al Kuraishi, director of the child advocacy group Seyaj, says early marriage often means early divorce. “In Yemen, popular culture encourages early marriages,” he says. “Traditions are an integral part of religion, but the low level of education is one of the main causes.”

The association’s 400 volunteers cover the most remote rural areas, which are also the worst hit. They go from school to school and from house to house to hand out comic books aimed at raising awareness and preventing early marriages. They’ve already distributed 8,500 books. The organization also trained 100 people in writing marriage contracts and verifying the genuine consent of the bride, in strict accordance with Yemen’s civil code. After that, they created a guide to help lawyers defend young victims in court.

Now Seyaj is trying to fight rich men from the Gulf who come to Yemen to wed young girls for a few thousand dollars. “Our reputation is good and parents fear us now,” Ahmed Al Kuraishi says. “Some fear that we might put our nose in their business and halt marriage procedures. Other times, we intervene to stop ceremonies as they happen. Citizens, often from villages, don’t hesitate to give the police a heads-up, and young children come to us for shelter. Ever since the Nojoud affair, we have been seeing real change.”

The girl who grew a movement

Yemeni women have grown more confident, and the story of Nojoud Ali is an important reason why. In 2008, the world discovered the smiling face of a slender 10-year-old child. Nojoud’s family married her off by force. Under the protection of a judge, she obtained a resounding divorce.

“My trial certainly marks the beginning of the fight against early marriages,” she says. “Girls have heard my story and started to talk. Three of them have met me to tell me: "You are our spokesperson. We liberated ourselves thanks to you."”

Nojoud is now 15 years old and still wants to become a lawyer to defend children. “One day, a girl told me her story. Her father, who was very poor, wanted to marry her off to get money. I talked to him and tried to convince him to delay the marriage for seven years. I told him: "My father also tried to force me into marrying some man. Your daughter will be a victim, maybe you’ll even lose her. Such a marital life is impossible. You must be wise."” That day, he was wise. He was able to keep the money and delay the wedding.

“The problem is not in the legislation but in the minds,” says Najeeb Ghanem, an Islamist parliament member and former health minister. “We must first of all educate the people. Then we will be able to solve the main social problems in the rural areas, like illiteracy. All those who come from abroad talk about rules but never about the problems that exist here. We must fight against poverty, against unemployment. The economy is my first, second and third priority.”

The National Dialogue Conference will soon examine the recommendations of its work groups, including establishing the legal age for marriage at 18. Although she was ready and willing, Nojoud Ali was not invited to speak at the lecture, as these committees are trying to define a “New Yemen.”

“I imagined myself speaking in front of all these representatives,” she says. “I simply wanted to tell them, "We, the children, must be able to study and play. To live through our childhood."”

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