By Suad Abu-Dayyeh
The winning entry in the ‘Contemporary Issues’ section of the 2012 ‘World Press Photo Competition’ is a haunting image of two Yemeni men standing next to their child brides. Equality Now has been calling on the Government of Yemen to prevent child marriages for several years. However, this severe form of discrimination against women and girls continues to exist. UNICEF suggests that although the legal age for marriage in Yemen is 15, a recent study revealed that the average in certain parts of the country is closer to 12 or 13.
A draft child marriage bill was introduced in Yemen’s parliament in 2009. It decreed that 17 should be the minimum marriage age for girls and prescribed penalties and punishment for violators. However, it was effectively blocked in 2010 by the parliament’s Shariah (Islamic law) Committee, when it issued 15 pages of recommendations against a minimum age of marriage, arguing in part that early child-bearing prevents breast cancer. Further discussion surrounding the bill has been postponed, and it is unclear if and when this issue will be taken up again.
The 2011 revolution in Yemen led to a change in government that women hoped would result in improved lives for them and their children. During the protests women played important roles, as evidenced by the awarding of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman for her "non violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work". In spite of their significant involvement in the revolution, Yemeni women fear that their rights and participation in decision-making processes will continue to be marginalised. Activists on the ground have confirmed that key issues such as child marriage will not be considered a priority by the new government.
In 2010, Equality Now and their partner, Yemeni Women Union (YWU), became involved in the case of “Wafa”, who, at the age of 11, was sold by her father into marriage to a violent 40-year-old man. While they were ultimately successful in getting her a divorce, she had to be moved into a shelter to escape a relative who tried to further sexually abuse and marry her. Wafa has been able to resume her education, but the shelter is a temporary solution and is not ideal for a now 13-year-old girl.
Equality Now has also been following the case of another child bride, who managed to get a divorce, but is now facing tremendous hardship, including being exploited in prostitution by her own relatives.
As these cases show, without a law banning child marriage, child brides remain at constant risk of exploitation and abuse. The failure of the Yemeni government to stop child marriage, including through enactment of the proposed law, is a violation of their international obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) both of which contain provisions against child marriage.
Equality Now and YWU need your help to call upon the government of Yemen to make the rights of women and girls a priority, to pass and enforce a law prohibiting child marriage, and to ensure the safety and human rights of child brides who have ended their marriages. Without laws banning child marriage, girls remain at constant risk of exploitation and do not reach their full potential. We must take action now.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh joined Equality Now as a consultant for the Middle East and North Africa in 2008.