MPS say: no to genital mutilation, 18 is minimum marriage age, juveniles cannot be punished as adults [Archives:2008/1167/Local News]

June 26 2008

By: Kawkab Al-Thaibani
For the Yemen Times

SANA'A, June 24 ) A two-day workshop in Parliament concluded that the minimum marriage age in Yemen should be 18, and the sponsors of both brides and grooms should be punished if they allow them to marry under this age.

The workshop's participants also concluded that juvenile delinquents between the ages of 15 and 18 are not equal to adult criminals. They further recommended laws banning female genital mutilation.

The workshop covered three main areas: the criminality of juveniles, female genital mutilation, and the minimum age of marriage. These three subjects were chosen because the existing laws concerning them are not specific enough and are often ignored.

This workshop was arranged by Parliament, the Higher Council for Motherhood and Childhood, and the Yemeni Network Combating Violence Against Women known as SHIMA, under the sponsorship of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), OXFAM International, and Save the Children, a worldwide children's rights organization. Attendees included members of the Sharia Committee, who matches the constitutional laws with Islamic sharia law, Parliament members (MPs), doctors and human rights activists.

“The main purpose of the workshop is to amend the laws that did not provide protection to children,” said Naseem Ur-Rehman, UNICEF's communications director.

Ur-Rehman said that he heard about Nojoud Al-Ahdal Nasser, the young girl who went to court to ask for a divorce from her almost 30-year-old husband. He added that there are many cases like Nojoud's which go unnoticed. “We want to end the silent suffering,” he told the attendees.

In April, after Nojoud's case was published in news sources around the world, the Safe Maternity Act presented by the health committee failed to pass in Parliament. The act included a minimum age of 18 for marriage, punishment for families who marry their children off earlier and a ban on genital mutilation. The Sharia Committee refused the act because they said that the minimum age for marriage in Islam is not definite.

Parliament President Yahia Al-Ra'i and religious scholar Ahmed Abdul-Razaq Al-Rukaihi, who is also a member of the Sharia Committee, said that they will take these recommendations into account when drafting the laws.

Minimum age of Marriage

The suggestion to specify the marriage age faced more objections than the other two subjects addressed during the workshop. Specifically, the Sharia Committee found it difficult to define a specific minimum age of marriage. Hassan Al-Sheikh, a scholar and Sharia Committee member, said that he was confused after what he heard in the workshop. “I am afraid that if we stop early marriage, we could create troubles for young people,” said Al-Sheikh.

Jabr Abdullah, a religious scholar, said that the ability to have sex could start from the age of nine.

Law professor Ali Hassan Al-Sharafi told the scholars that nothing in the proposal should worry them. He mentioned two main things about adopting a minimum age for marriage. First, he pointed out the dispute among Islamic scholars about the acceptability of early marriage. “This is a good thing to use in our favor; we should consider the most suitable opinion,” said Al-Sharafi. He added that in Islam, there are things considered mobah [neither forbidden nor obligated], which he said would include creating a minimum age for marriage.

The attendees objected to the current law that states that the young girl can be married if she is ready for sex. Attendees said that readiness is not measurable, and that young girls are vulnerable to exploitation.

Scholar Al-Rukaihi said that he was really moved when he understood the negative health impacts of early marriage brought up during the workshop, such as obstetric fistula [a common ailment among child brides who give birth that causes permanent incontinence and physical pain]. “Honestly, I was affected by what I saw,” he said.

Another attendee, Huda Al-Yafe'i, the head of the orphan sector in Al-Saleh Social Foundation for Development, said that legislators have to differentiate between early marriage and early pregnancy. “As a teacher, I have seen many girls who go astray and to stop them from marrying is not good.”

Others objected to the idea of differentiating between early marriage and early pregnancy because to control that is not attainable, and marriage is not limited to pregnancy. PM Shawqi Al-Qadhi said that marriage is not only about sex, it is a whole new life for girls who are often unprepared for its stresses.

Attendee Jamila Al-Ra'abi said that early marriage does not solve any problems, but rather creates more. “Early marriages makes lots of orphans, and causes a lot of pain for young mothers,” she said.

According to a study by the Gender Development Research and Studies Center in Sana'a University in 2005 early marriages trigger social, psychological and health problems like obstetric fistula, malnutrition, psychological trauma, maternal and child mortality . Early marriage also increases a girl's vulnerability to domestic abuse by both the husband and her in-laws. Early marriage forces girls to drop out of school, which dramatically affects the country's development as a whole. Other groups like the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have also condemned the practice.

Criminal Responsibility:

Criminal responsibility was discussed in two respects: legality and the religious background for lawmaking. Al-Sharafi said that there is a difference between puberty and adulthood. Al-Sharafi and other attendees quoted the Qur'anic verse that says, “And try orphans (as regards their intelligence) until they reach the age of marriage; if then you find sound judgment in them, release their property to them.” They said that this verse showed that puberty does not mean adulthood, and criminal responsibility should be measured this way. A juvenile offender at the age of 15 can be punished with between 10 to 20 years in prison for a crime, but cannot be executed for murder. “His young age should be taken as an extenuating circumstance in major crimes, and he should get half the sentence for minor ones,” said Al-Sharafi.

Scholar Al-Rukaihi objected to this, saying that some people might use juveniles to kill others. Al-Qadhi responded that he understood the fears of the religious scholars, but juveniles shouldn't be punished for others' mistakes. Al-Sharafi agreed that the one who incited the child to commit a crime should be punished as if he was the perpetrator.

Genital Mutilation:

Despite the fact that most of the PMs said that they did not believe that Yemenis perform female genital mutilation, the Health Survey of the Yemeni Family, conducted by the government in 2003, showed that over 21 percent of Yemeni women are exposed to this extremely harmful practice.

Yemen has five main governorates that still perform female genital mutilation: Hodeidah (97.3 percent), Mahrah (96.6 percent), Hadhramout (96.5 percent), Aden (82.2 percent), and Sana'a Capital Secretariat (45.5 percent).

“I do not think that genital mutilation is rampant, but it is neither forbidden nor an obligation and therefore it is acceptable if we stop doing it to prevent the damage,” said Al-Sheikh.

Genital mutilation has dangerous consequences for female reproductive health in both the short- and long-term, according to the UNFPA and the WHO, among a large number of non-governmental organizations.