SANAA - Hundreds of women clad in black `niqabs’ demonstrated in front of parliament in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on March 23. Some were waving banners with the words: “Yes to the Sharia [Islamic legal] rights of Muslim women”, while others raised the Koran above their heads.
“It is against Islam to set a minimum age for marriage,” said Zeinab al-Sunaidar, 27, a secretary from Iman University. “A girl can get married when she’s an adult - for some girls that is when they are 15 and for others when they are nine.”
The debate on early marriages has polarized Yemeni society. Some cite religious texts as a justification not to set a minimum age. Others say Islam does not advocate child marriages and that the negatives of children getting married far outweigh the positives.
What is the current legal age of marriage?
Prior to the unification of Yemen in 1990, the law set the minimum age of marriage at 16 in South Yemen and 15 in the north. After unification, the law was set at 15. In 1999, the civil status law was amended and the minimum age was abolished.
However, according to Shada Mohammed Nasser, an attorney at the Supreme Court who has worked on several child bride cases, the law stipulates that a girl should not sleep with her husband until she is mature. “But the law is not enforced,” said Nasser, citing the case of 12-year-old Sally al-Sabahi, who was married at the age of 10 and was divorced on 27 March.
How many marry under age in Yemen?
According to the Washington DC-based International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), 48 percent of girls are married when they are under 18. This, according to The Convention on the Rights of the Child which Yemen has signed and ratified, is “under age”.
In some governorates just over half of all girls marry under the age of 15, according to an unpublished 2007 study on early marriage by Sanaa University’s Gender Development Research and Study Centre.
What does the proposed law on minimum age advocate?
An amendment to the civil status law would impose a hefty fine and up to a year’s imprisonment for parents who marry off their daughters before the age of 17, or sons before 18.
The bill was brought before parliament in February 2009, where a majority voted for it. However, it was opposed by the Sharia Committee, so it was passed back to the parliament’s constitutional committee for review.
On March 21, several religious clerics issued a fatwa (decree) against a minimum age. However, parliament is set to vote on the bill again, but no specific date has been set.
Who is against the minimum age and why?
Much of the opposition has been voiced by conservative elements within the opposition party, Islah, and within the Sharia Committee, along with other religious institutions.
Those who oppose the bill cite the example of the marriage between the Prophet Mohammed and his second wife Aisha, who was said to be around nine at the time. “We view a child as mature when it reaches puberty, not when it’s 18,” said Sheikh Mohammed al-Hazmi, who is a member of the Yemeni parliament.
They also stress that sex outside marriage is adultery, according to Sharia. “We understand that young people are sexually active, but unlike in the West, they can marry here and not partake in immoral behaviour,” said al-Hazmi.
Who is for the minimum age and why?
Proponents of a minimum age say children are neither mentally nor physically ready to marry, let alone have children. "The greatest problem facing Yemeni women today is child marriages," said Wafa Ahmad Ali from the Yemeni Women’s Union. "These early marriages rob the girl of the right to a normal childhood and education.”
They also say children’s bodies are not mature enough to carry children. “I see a lot of complications because of early marriages,” said Sanaa-based gynaecologist Arwa Elrabee. “These marriages are only about suffering.”
Other critics say the younger a mother is when she starts to have children the more she is likely to have. Yemen’s population is growing at a rate of 3.2 percent a year, one of the fastest rates in the world.
Even if the law is passed, will it be implemented?
The lack of a reliable birth registration system in Yemen might hamper the implementation of the law; some parents might lie about their child’s age, say experts. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says an effective birth registration system is fundamental to the realization of a number of rights and practical needs.
Activists are hopeful that changing perceptions about long-held traditions could bring about real change. “If the passing of the law is followed up with awareness campaigns and education, it has a chance of being implemented,” said lawyer Nasser.