Religious leaders support banning early marriage in Yemen [Archives:2008/1151/Local News]

May 1 2008

By: Hamed Thabet
SANA'A, April 30 ) The issue of approving a law defining the marriage age for Yemeni youths prompted lengthy discussions and debates among human rights activists and religious leaders at an April 29 conference held by Siyaj Organization, a new Yemeni NGO focusing on underage marriage and children's rights.

According to Member of Parliament Abdulbari Dughaish, also a member of Parliament's Public Health and Population committee, “This is in an extremely dangerous situation in Yemen, so we must find a solution to early marriage. Four years ago, [the committee] proposed that Parliament change the law regarding the marriage age and motherhood, increasing it to 18, but unfortunately, that was ignored.”

Suha Bashren, policy and campaign officer for Oxfam in Yemen, criticized those MPs who refused to issue this law setting the marriage age at 18, pointing out that, “In order to have a Yemeni driving license, an individual must be 18 years old, so why doesn't Parliament want to increase the marriage age to 18 instead of 15?”

Religious leader Sheikh Hassan Al-Ahdal affirmed that Islam stresses the importance of youths attaining maturity, wherein a girl is able to make a reasonable choice of marriage partner.

“According to medical studies, girls at age 15 aren't mentally or physically mature enough to enter a marriage relationship,” Al-Ahdal noted, affirming the Islamic teaching that no individual or parent has the authority to force a daughter to marry.

“In some cases where a girl has no shelter or she's poor, she may marry, but her husband can't have sexual relations with her until she reaches maturity; however, it should be noted that this is possible only with her permission,” he added.

Al-Ahdal gave an example from the time of the Prophet Mohammed where a young slave girl came to him, saying, “My father forced me to marry a man I don't like and I want to leave him,” so he requested the man divorce her.

According to a 2006 estimate by UNICEF, 60 million marriages occurred worldwide before the age of 18, while in the Middle East, which includes Yemen, there were 3.3 million marriages before age 18, said Naseem Al-Rahman, chief of communications and advocacy for UNICEF-Yemen.

He further noted that in Yemen, 365 out of 100,000 women annually die in childbirth, often because their bodies are too young and immature to endure labor.

“Parents believe that the earlier and sooner they marry off their daughters, the better off they'll be and hence, they are rid of the responsibility, so this is forcing young girls to marry while they're still immature and not ready to become mothers,” Al-Rahman added.

Regarding early marriage in Yemen, general health expert Dr. Abdullah Al-Kamil says some studies assure and focus that nearly 25 percent of girls under age 15 marry in Yemen, while the other 25 percent marry between ages 11 and 15, 70 percent of whom live in rural areas.

Ten percent of Yemeni men prefer marrying 10-year-old girls, while 65 percent prefer girls between ages 15 and 19. Only 27 percent prefer girls over age 18. This percentage decreases to 12 percent in rural areas and 4 percent in cities.

Additionally, approximately 30 percent of young women aged between 15 and 19 have at least one or two children. Thus, as Al-Kamil noted, “The problem here isn't only early marriage, but also early pregnancy – and in most cases, early death as well.”

Girls who marry before age 18 are twice as likely to die during pregnancy, Al-Rahman pointed out.

Yemeni customs traditionally are Bedouin, belonging to the pre-Islamic era. “It's forbidden and unacceptable to force a young girl into marriage and destroy her life; thus, whoever does so must be assured that he or she is doing wrong and committing a sin,” said religious leader, Sheikh Al-Mortadha Zaid Al-Mahdhouri.

Attorney Ali Al-'Asemi stresses that the Yemeni legislature must increase the marriage age to 18, as well as punish those parents and guardians who force their young daughters to marry.