Yemen debates child marriage

Yemen is in the throes of a heated political battle over a law that would ban child marriage. Viewed from afar, this is as much of a no-brainer as the American debate about health care. And yet, as in the US, the forces of resistance are strong.

Yesterday, supporters of child marriage took to the streets of Sana'a, carrying what they said was a petition with a million signatures.

Child marriage is very common in Yemen and, according to a study cited by The National, the average age of marriage for girls in the coastal provinces of Hodeidah and Hadramout is eight years, though in urban areas the average age is 15. This is one reason why a large number of girls drop out of school.

The proposed law would set a minimum marriage age of 17 for females and 18 for males.

Quotes from some of yesterday's demonstrators, reported in The National, highlight the difficulty of changing traditional attitudes:

  • “We will not allow this [draft] law to be passed. This is against our religion that has not set an age for marriage. They want to impose western values on us and we cannot accept that.”

  • “Marriage is a kind of protection for young people. We do not want our daughters to be like those girls in America who produce children without fathers.”

  • “It is not true that underage marriage is harmful but it has been scientifically proved to be healthy.” [In fact, it hasn't been proved at all. Girls under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties.]

The other side had their say in February when a demonstrationwhich included more than 1,000 children called on parliament to speed up the process of setting a minimum age.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 March 2010.