A mother a little too soon [Archives:2007/1068/Reportage]

July 16 2007

Hana Al-Sanhani
For Yemen Times

“A child gave birth to a child,” Rania, a fourteen-year-old mother described herself. One year ago she was married off to a man 15 years older than her. Even before she got pregnant, Rania described her married life as difficult and confusing.

On a late Wednesday night, Rania's labor began and she was rushed to the hospital. After a long, painful ordeal and surgery, she gave birth to a small baby girl. The doctor informed her father and husband that she had suffered from severe tears in the womb and birth canal because “her body was not ready to bear a child”.

Early marriage is said to be one of the main social problems within Yemen due to its alleged negative impact on both the physical and mental health, as well as on many other aspects of a young woman's life. Many organizations have carried out studies to support their allegations as to the harmful effects of early marriage. The objective of such studies is to produce findings, backed by relevant specialists, which will encourage the abandonment of such a practice. “We should analyze the background of this phenomenon and see why it takes place in order to be able to fight it,” stated Hooria Mashoor, Deputy Chairperson of the Women National Committee, which has carried out a study on this issue.

The study included 1,495 young people in Hodeidah and Hadramout governorates, which, according to the study, are the Yemeni governorates where early marriage is most common. Figures showed the spread of early marriage as 52.1 percent among women compared to 6.7 percent among men in the two mentioned governorates.

The people included in the study expressed their desire to establish a law specifying a minimum age for marriage. This could possibly prevent the negative consequences of early marriage faced by young Yemenis as well as on development in general.

The study also showed that illiteracy increases by 43 percent among women who marry at an early age, affecting national productivity as a whole. An academic study conducted in April of this year revealed that 70% of people who had an early marriage were between 10 and 17 years old at the time of marriage.

Cause and effect

Researchers and specialists agree that the biggest contributing factor to this problem is poverty. This is why early marriage is most common in Hodeidah, which, if it is not the poorest governorate, is one of the poorest. Poor families are anxious to relieve themselves of the economic strain of caring for daughters and hence marry them off at the first opportunity presented.

The studies explain that there is a marriage age difference between rural and urban areas. The occurrence of early marriages decreases in urban areas compared to rural areas in percentage while the average age for marriage in rural areas is less (12 – 24 years) compared to cities (15 – 28 years). A seminar carried out in June on the same issue revealed that 70% of early marriages take place in rural areas compared to 30% in urban areas.

In rural areas, the males are more likely to get married at a young age because of circumstances specific to rural living, which does not depend on education or getting a job in the formal sector. Boys marry as early as 17 years old because of the importance of creating a family and bringing new free labor to work in the family farms. This is seen as more important then pursuing a formal education.

Second to poverty, social and religious factors play a strong role in promoting early marriage, especially among girls. Hadramout governorate is one of the most socially and religiously conservative areas in Yemen. In such communities there is a common concern that a girl must be married off before she loses her virginity in an un-honorable way. Specialists link early marriage with the societal behaviors that dominate and control the sexual life of women. Proverbs in the Yemeni tradition confirm this speculation. For example, the proverb, “Bint al-Thaman Al-yaiha al-Dhaman,” means “The girl of eight is guaranteed,” in terms of virginity and no experience with men.

Early marriage is said to affect the young mother physically and emotionally, causing her to lag behind in her personal and career development and feel insecure in her marriage. It is also said to violate the girl's right to formal education because in most real life cases, the girl drops out of school once married.

In addition, there is the effect on her general and reproductive health. Medical studies show a strong correlation between early marriage and mother and infant mortality, difficult and prolonged labor, under weight newborns, malnutrition, stunted child growth, neurological diseases, and increased susceptibility to infection.

According to the Child Rights Convention that Yemen had ratified, Articles 24, 28 and 34 ensure the right to education, good health, and prevention of sexual exploitation of the child.

Advocacy and Support

The Yemeni network combating violence against women, known as SHIMA, last year launched the first awareness campaign against early marriage in cooperation with the Yemeni Women's Union and other civil society organsiations. The campaign, backed by doctors, psychologists, lawyers, and religious scholars aims at creating increasing support for the dissolution of early marriages and mobilizing the community to raise the age of marriage for boys and girls. The network advocates for a minimum marriage age of 18 for both males and females. Religious men in the group state that delaying the age of marriage is not against the principles of Islam so long as it is in the best interest of the youth and the society at large.

In their recent meeting at the end of last month, SHIMA devised a strategy and advocacy plan targeting members of Parliament in order to amend Article 15 of the Personal Status Law which concerns marriage yet does not define a minimum age for marriage. The network hopes to pressure the Parliament to adopt 18 as a minimum age for marriage for both males and females, along with implementing a serious monitoring mechanism to insure compliance with the marital age requirement.

Lawyers advocating for the enactment of such an amendment argue that current laws contradict Article 23 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, Article Two of the Child Rights Convention, and Article 16 of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. This is keeping in mind that Yemen was one of the first countries to ratify all international conventions mentioned above.

People's Reactions

Before SHIMA launched their campaign, heated debates took place as to what is the expected reaction from the society and whether there will be campaigns of opposition promoting early marriage especially in conservative areas.

A father of five girls from Sana'a commented that he believes early marriage is a dangerous practice and is triggered by lack of education and religious misconceptions. He argued that 20 is the best age for marriage for both boys and girls.

In contrast, a religious preacher argued the opposite. He endorsed his argument for early marriage through the example of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, who married Aa'ishah when she was nine years old. When reminded that Prophet Mohammad also married Khadijah when she was 40 years old, he brushed the topic off.

Regardless of what people think, especially the fathers, those who matter the most are the children, male and female.

Rania looked with envy from her window at the children of her age playing in the street, glancing every now and then at her newborn sleeping beside her. One day, not so long ago she was one of those children giggling so happily and today here she is, wounded body and burdened spirit with a responsibility way beyond her years.