In Yemen, one girl fights back against the practice of early marriage
© UNICEF VIDEO
By Alison Parker
“Let girls be girls, not brides.” –United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon
SANA’A, Yemen, 26 March 2014 – One afternoon, Laila returned home from school, excited to tell her mother about what she had learned and the games she had played with her friends. The 13-year-old found her mother lying in bed. As she drew close, she realized her mother was crying. Something must be terribly wrong, Laila thought.
Laila’s father Nasser burst into the house, shouting her name. Laila wondered what she could have done wrong. “My father then informed me that I was getting married in the next two weeks,” she recalls. “For a moment, I thought he was joking…I tried opening my mouth, but no words came out. It was not open for discussion or negotiation; the deal had been done.
“I started screaming, and my mother rushed out to grab me while my father angrily threatened to beat – or even kill – me, if I refused. I was helpless. It was like a nightmare. I saw my world crashing around me. I wanted the nightmare to end so I could be back at school with my friends.”
Widespread practice with profound effects
Child marriage is a fundamental human rights violation and has an impact on all aspects of a girl’s life. Child marriage denies a girl of her childhood, disrupts her education, limits her opportunities, increases her risk of violence and abuse, jeopardizes her health and therefore constitutes an obstacle to the achievement of nearly every Millennium Development Goal and the development of healthy communities.
In Yemen, child marriage of girls, sometimes as young as 8 years old, is widespread. The recent National Social Protection Monitoring Survey showed that 13 per cent of girls under the age of 18 in Yemen are married, and that nearly half of women between the ages of 20 and 49 were married before their eighteenth birthday.
The country has no uniformly defined age for a child, and few legal protections exist to prevent the practice of early marriage. This lack of policy sits in contrast to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Yemen is a signatory.
“It is really a sad and painful phenomenon if you see young girls getting married, losing their childhood and missing out on education opportunities,” says Abdu Mansoub, a religious leader in Hodeidah governorate who runs a vocational training centre for women.
In addition to the harm it causes the girls, themselves, the practice is having a quiet, yet drastic, impact on the country.
The removal of young women from public life so early has ripple effects, most notably in the areas of education and the economy. “If you marry off your girls too young, you’re essentially taking out of the workforce a huge section of the population, therefore diminishing the country’s human capacity to grow,” explains UNICEF’s Deputy Representative in Yemen Jeremy Hopkins.
Addressing child marriage
Addressing child marriage requires a multisectoral approach, as the practice has deeper, more far-reaching roots than the law or religious conservatism. Aggravated socio-economic issues and the high cost of living continue to increase disparities, vulnerabilities, inequities and shrinking community resilience, especially among vulnerable populations. These problems, in turn, lead to an increase in negative coping mechanisms such as child marriage.
The future may hold some promise. There are signs that Yemeni society is beginning to become more aware of the impact that marriage has on children.
Delegates at the National Dialogue Conference – a cornerstone of Yemen’s political transition that has gathered a diverse group of Yemenis to help chart the country’s future – have debated the issue.
They have also taken first steps in defining ‘children’ as all persons under the age of 18. This event is a major milestone in addressing key child protection issues in Yemen, including child labour, juvenile death penalty, child trafficking and child marriage.
Laila’s family proved to be her salvation.
Her uncles attempted to persuade Nasser to let her complete her education. But, financial commitments had been made in conjunction with the transaction – and Laila was forcibly married.
With the help of some family members, Laila was able to escape the night she was wed. She was taken to live with her grandmother in the family house across town. Laila never had to live with her husband and was never forced to ‘consummate’ the marriage.
According to Yemeni law, Laila remains legally wed. Her husband is now demanding either that she be returned to him or that he receive financial compensation. Laila is fighting for a divorce.
As the likely long and arduous process drags out, Laila wants to return to school. But, her family fear she may be abducted. So, for now, her life remains on hold.
“I am not sure if I will ever escape from this nightmare,” says Laila. “I pray for my younger sisters that they will never have to go through this.”