Parliament refuses to legislate minimum age for marriage [Archives:2008/1146/Front Page]

April 14 2008
Nujood Ali
Nujood Ali
Hamed Thabet
SANA'A, April 13 – Despite pressure of 8-year-old girl's husband refusing to set her free. Simultaneously, Yemeni Parliament does not consider early marriage as a priority and is not moving forward with legislation to prevent it.

The Yemeni Parliament, through its Evaluation and Jurisprudence Committee, rejected a request to amend the personal status law presented by the Women's National Committee (WNC). Women's movements and civil society in Yemen along with 61 Parliament members have advocated a law that legislates a minimum marriage age of 18 for both males and females. However, the Jurisprudence Committee claims there are no legislative grounds to impose such a law based on its understanding of Islam.

“Not only is it not Islamic, it is even inhuman to subject our girls to such an experience. We must continue to fight for the sake of a better future for our daughters,” said Rashida Al-Hamadani, chairperson of the WNC.

Sixty-one Parliament members (MPs) were recently part of a Safe Motherhood project that included an item for early marriage. However, the issue was rejected by the Evaluation and Jurisprudence Committee, which said it is a health issue and cannot be generalized. The issue was passed to Parliament's Health Committee, where it will reside for an unknown duration.

Yet a number of MPs feel that this issue deserves better attention.

“If it is my personal opinion I believe 18 is the right age, because marriage is such a big responsibility,” said MP Fuad Dahaba, an Islah party member.

A live case

Shatha Mohammed Nasser, a lawyer in the Supreme Court, said that the case of Nujood Ali, an 8-year-old girl who was forced to marry, is an excellent opportunity to push such legislation forward.

“There are hundreds of Nujood s who have been subjected to sexual abuse by mature men. The problem is that there is no law to punish the father who marries off the child, the sheikh who allows the marriage, or the husband who takes the child home to serve him as a wife,” said Nasser.

Although he is currently in custody, Nujood's husband has rejected her demand to be divorced.

“I will not divorce her, and it is my right to keep her. No need to sleep with her, at least I can have her as a wife. No power can stop me,” the husband, Faez Ali Thamer, said.

“It is not a matter of loving her, I don't, but it's just a challenge to her and her uncle who think that they can put me in jail and also the judge has no right to bring me here. How did she dare to complain about me?” he threatened.

Nujood went to Sana'a West Court on April 2 and demanded that the judge grant a divorce between her and her 30-year-old husband, who had physically and sexually abused her for two months. She also filed a case against her father, who married her off to Thamer. Judge Muhammed Al-Qadhi was sympathetic and ordered both husband and father to be kept in custody; however, the latter was released later on health grounds.

However, neither the husband nor the father have legally committed any crime, according to Yemeni law. The husband is only in custody because the judge was sympathetic to Nujood, sheltering her for four days in his house before sending her to her uncle's house. Nujood's uncle additionally supported her in her demand to be divorced. Today Nujood remains at her uncle's home until she is transferred to a care center, where she will be safer.

Nasser has taken the responsibility to follow Nujood's case and she calls on national as well as international organizations and individuals to apply pressure in order to put an end to such practices in Yemen.

“I am afraid that the husband will escape from punishment because according to Yemeni custom and law he has not done anything wrong. Even if there is a law, no one respects the law,” added Nasser.

Nujood comes from a poor and broken family. She also has a six-year-old sister that might face the same fate as Nujood, if not worse.

Nasser hopes that the two girls can be rescued somehow and sent abroad, where they will find safety and a positive environment where they can grow and prosper.

One issue, many victims

Although Nujood's case is considered the first of its kind where a minor prosecutes her father for marrying her off at a young age and subjecting her to harm, there are many cases of Yemeni girls who have been married at a young age.

Early marriage is “one of the biggest development challenges in Yemen,” said Naseem Ur Rehman, chief information officer for UNICEF in Sana'a, on a previous occasion, adding, “This is because no groups have yet outgrown the practice.”

A 2006 field study revealed that child marriage among Yemeni girls reached 52.1%, compared to 6.7% among males. The study, conducted by the Woman and Development Study Center, affiliated to Sana'a University, looked at 1,495 couples, concluding that there is a huge age gap between the spouses.

The study established a comparison between ages of spouses in their first marriage through three generations. It disclosed that marriage age raised gradually from an average of 10.24 years to 14.70 years for women and from 20.97 to 21.54 years for men. It indicated that the average marriage age varies from one geographical area to another; for example, it showed that girls in Hodeidah and Hadramout married at the average age of eight, while in Mukalla the average age was 10.

Hasinah Al-Gader, head of the research center, stated that the study educated approximately 95 percent of religious men and a sampling of parents promoting early marriage, especially in conservative areas, about the importance of delaying marriage, as this is in the best interest of youth and society at large and not against Islamic principles.