By Ariana Marnicio
Posted by James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy
December 20, 2013
Marriage in the Middle East, as it is for many regions of the world, may not only be an expression of love and commitment, but also a way to bind two families together, strengthening social ties and ensuring financial stability. In some cases, these more practical motivations cause families to marry their daughters off prematurely, regardless of the physical and emotional repercussions of that decision. Child marriage, frequently interpreted as an Islamic practice, is often an act of financial desperation, hastened by a lack of education and feasible alternatives.
Child marriage in Yemen has been in and out of the news over the past several years and most recently in early September after the tragic death of Rawan, an eight-year-old girl who died of internal injuries days after being married to a 40-year-old man. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. According toHuman Rights Watch, more than half of all girls in Yemen are married before age 18, and about 14 percent of that number before they reach the age of 15. A quarter of Yemeni young women will become pregnant before the age of 18.
While the majority of countries in the Arab world have set a minimum marriage age, Yemen has struggled for many years with this issue. In 1999, Yemen’s parliament abolished the minimum marriage age, which had been set at 15. In 2009, Yemen’s parliament passed legislation raising the minimum age to 17, but it was struck down by some of the more conservative members, who asserted the bill violated Islamic law. While Islamic law does not stipulate a minimum age for marriage, it never advocates the marriage of children.
Extreme financial need is one of the primary reasons for child marriage in many parts of the Arab world. Many families cannot afford to provide for their children, and consider it a relief when their daughters get married and become part of the husband’s household. Additionally, the dowry that would be offered to the bride’s family could provide much-needed financial assistance. “Poverty is the main reason that fathers marry off their girls, as if they are selling them,” explained Shawki Al-Khadi, an Imam and member of the Yemeni Parliament, to Human Rights Watch, Although some families may view marrying off their daughters as a transaction or financial opportunity, many families truly believe that they are securing a better future for their daughter by marrying her off early.
However, child marriage is extremely harmful physically, emotionally and economically. Young wives face many physical dangers, among them domestic abuse, coerced sex and serious injury or death from complications of intercourse or pregnancy. “Thousands of Yemeni girls have their childhood stolen and their futures destroyed because they are forced to marry too young,” stated Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at the Human Rights Watch. The vast majority of these young girls must leave school, terminating their education and possible opportunities to earn money for themselves or their households. Although families may have allowed the marriage of their daughters in the hopes of providing them with a better future, they are, in effect, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
With the Yemeni government in a state of transition, the climate is right to propose new legislation that would protect young girls from the horrors of early marriage. In March 2013, Yemen initiated national discussions supported by the UN that has a lot of potential to lead to the drafting of a new constitution. Although the Human Rights Ministry in Yemen has actively fought against the tradition, the government must do more to hold individuals accountable and protect their young, female citizens. However, as was the case in 2009, there is the concern that the legislation could be shot down by conservative members of parliament on the basis that it was un-Islamic and went against Sharia law.
At least nine countries of the Arab world that recognize Sharia as a source of law have set the minimum marriage age at 18 or older. This list includes Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Oman, Algeria, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. This recognition of a need for marriage laws from within Muslim-majority countries suggests that setting a minimum age for marriage is not contrary to Islamic law, and perhaps is necessary in a modern Islamic state. Offering up young girls for marriage is frequently justified by citing Islamic tradition. However, it is clear that the financial and social motivations, rather than religious ones, are the true reasons that some Yemenis continue the practice. While legislation must be passed in order to hold people accountable, the underlying causes of child marriage, such as poverty and lack of education, must also be addressed.
Ariana Marnicio is the research assistant for the Women and Human Rights in the Middle East Program at Rice University’s Baker Institute. She recently graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in Arabic. She has lived in Egypt, Jordan and Oman. Her areas of interest include Arab culture, Islam and sexuality studies.