Consequences of child marriage in Yemen [Archives:2006/998/Reportage]

November 13 2006
Photo from archived article: photos/998/report1_1
Photo from archived article: photos/998/report1_1
Fatima Al-Ajel and Hanan Al-Hamzi
According to recent research by Oxfam-supported partners, more than 50 percent of Yemeni girls marry before age 18, with many forced to give their 'consent' to marrying older men. However, what's more tragic is child marriage, where neither the young boy or girl have any idea about marriage and its responsibilities.

An ancient phenomenon, early marriage is increasing in the 21st century, but its consequences are enormous, as boys and their young brides are forced to drop out of school, take on responsibilities for which they have no capacity and ultimately, become victims of spontaneous divorces that break up families.

Ali Abdullah, 25, of Dhamar governorate married when he was 14, his bride being three years his junior. Both have suffered in the marriage. Abdullah neither has completed his studies nor found a job to increase his family income, especially since they have a seven-year-old child. He needs to go to school, but his father is unable to provide even the barest necessities – let alone Abdullah's school needs.

“I look around me. I've been under a lot of psychological stress since my first year of marriage when I became a father and my wife's still young. After seven years of marriage, there's still no harmony between us. I've thought a lot about divorce because I can't take the stress anymore.”

Then there's the stress of large families living together. Faisal Mohamed, 26, is married and living in his father's house with his wife and four children. He completed secondary school and now works in his uncle's shop. Yet after 10 years of marriage, Mohamed hasn't improved his position and the weight of his responsibilities is drowning him.

As the problems have mounted, his father finally has driven him from the house. “My living conditions are bad. We live in poverty and my wife doesn't know how to care for the children or me because she's still a child herself. We stay together because of the kids; otherwise, we would've divorced. We don't want our kids living far from us.”

In most cases, divorce still is considered the worst solution, even in a bad marriage. Those who honestly do their best to live in harmony yet realize that it's useless will divorce as a last recourse, but only after careful thought and profound soul-searching, with spouses usually discussing the decision beforehand.

But some instances reveal that for many Yemenis, such consideration, thought and soul-searching aren't even prerequisites envisioned when going ahead with a marriage – much less a divorce.

At 35, Abdullatif Hamoud is one of these cases. He'd always been interested in traveling and in trade, so he gave little thought to marriage. But at 19, his father forced the issue, so Hamoud married a 15-year-old. After eight years and several children, he asked his wife to return to her father's house with their children, divorcing her without reason. He hadn't wanted a wife from the beginning, but only married to satisfy his father.

Hamoud's wife and children are now victims of this unwanted marriage. “I'm now free like a bird and I can travel wherever I want. No responsibilities, no problems,” Hamoud says. His wife now lives without any type of care or financial support for her or their children. She's divorced and carrying the responsibilities of both parents, while her ex-husband is free as a bird and neglectful in every way.

Nowadays, there's an increase in marriages ending within the first few months. The reasons vary, but the results are the same: divorced women and their children living without any care or financial support. Some young husbands divorce or leave without ever mentioning the reason for their decision.

Hassan Motaher is one such husband, having married at 18. Two months later, he traveled to Saudi Arabia with his friends to work without notifying anyone, not even his wife. After a year, he sent a message to his father saying that he wasn't returning to Yemen and to tell his wife to return to her father's house because she's now divorced.

These young men don't understand what marriage entails, nor do they realize the chaos they create for their wives, children and these women's families. They behave carelessly, never realizing the needless suffering that ensues because their wives now lack any care or financial support. Deprived of a solid home, their children become the ultimate victims.

But the child brides and grooms are victimized more so because it's not their decision to marry in the first place. The onus is on their parents, who insist on their early marriage. Again, the reasons are mind-blowing.

Mohamed attends 6th grade at Al-Motasim School in a small neighborhood, where he lives with his large and destitute family. His sick mother of nine children 'advised' the 12-year-old to marry in order to help her with the house responsibilities, so a month later, Mohamed married his uncle's 10-year-old daughter. He continues going to school and playing with his friends in the zone because he knows nothing about marriage. No one in his zone believes he's even married.

Yet why did his mother ask him to marry, bringing in one more mouth to feed while he's unable to carry out the duties of an adult man? His condition of being a child hasn't changed, yet the world has changed dramatically for his 10-year-old bride because she now must grow up instantly and help with the other children, putting aside her own childhood. Is this really a marriage or something else entirely?

UNICEF lists Yemen as the world's fourth fastest growing population. Every day, one sees children selling their wares on the streets. The number of divorces increases daily in Yemen.

Where are the government's plans to raise awareness against child marriage? When will we see strict laws against “instant divorces” that drop women and their children back into their father's homes without any type of financial support or care for their welfare? These destitute women are now their parents' burden with an added package – children who, on their own, will become victims of a vicious cycle.

Most importantly, when will Yemenis become responsible and sensible in the decisions they make regarding their children's futures?