Roughly half of all girls in Yemen are married before the age of 18 – many of them before they have even reached their teens. Poor families, especially in the rural areas, seek to marry off their daughters as early as possible in order to collect a dowry.
The government is proposing to set a minimum age limit of 17 for females and 18 for males and a final decision is expected next month.
The issue came to the fore as a result of two high-profile cases: that of a 10-year-old girl who succeeded in divorcing her 30-year-old husband, and that of a 12-year-old girl who died during childbirth. Girls under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties, and child brides tend to drop out of school before completing their studies.
Objections to banning child marriage come mainly from traditiionalists and the more extreme religious elements. A group of Yemen clerics, including Abdul Majid al-Zindani (founder of al-Imaan university and a prominent figure in the opposition Islah party) have issued a statement saying that "fixing the age of marriage is an act that contradicts the precepts of Islam".
The government has a huge majority in parliament and could easily push the law through if it chose to do so. But is it fearful of alienating key elements of Yemen's highly traditional society and being labelled "godless" by the Islah party.
There are hints of a compromise in which 17/18 would be set as the minimum age, but with no penalties for infringement – which would basically render the law inoperative from the start. Even if the law goes through with penalties attached, though, it is still likely to be disregarded in many parts of the country.
Changing attitudes towards child marriage in Yemen is going to be a long, slow process but at least the issue is now getting publicly debated. An article in the Yemen Times, for example, challenges some of the familiar religious arguments about setting a minimum age.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 March 2010.