Tuesday 5 June 2012

Girl brides in Yemen: the fight for the right to say no

"A mother of a 13 year old girl in the rural north of Yemen contacted us, asking for help after her daughter died due to bleeding on the marriage night." Normally, you would expect to encounter such stories in NGO reports, but it is the Yemeni Minister for Human Rights, Hooria Mashhour, who is disarmingly forthcoming about the problem facing girls in her country.
"Child marriage is happening across the Arab countries, but it is more widespread in Yemen, based on the cultural tribal traditions", she explains. "During my work with the Women National Committee I've encountered many sad cases. Even within the office, the cleaner said that she was forced to get married at the age of 12, which caused her medical complication in the urinary system and she needed treatment to recover."
In a country that has recently ousted its president after 33 years in power, surprisingly little has changed for girls who are forced to get married before they reach adulthood. According to a 2008 study by the Gender Development Research and Studies Centre in Sana'a, just over half of girls are married before their eighteenth birthday - some as young as eight. Admittedly, the problem is not unique to Yemen: in May 2012, the Grand Mufti of the neighbouring Saudi Arabia suggested that girls can be married aged 10. However, in a recent report, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown notes that Yemen has the second highest number of mothers under the age of 15, out of the 16 countries where child marriage and pregnancy is most prevalent.
Unlike other developing countries who have raised the minimum age for marriage,Yemen has, in 1999, scrapped it altogether. Attempts by MPs to re-instate it in 2009, as well as protests on the streets and campaigns by the Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman, have not succeeded. Meanwhile, the fragile political situation and the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has overshadowed human rights issues. "The war on terrorism has affected child rights by preventing them from being top priorities of the national agenda, and generally has put security ahead of development and human rights issues", says Mashhour.
Child marriage affects primarily young brides, but it also exacerbates many of the social and economic problems in Yemen, hindering the country from making further progress. Married girls often drop out of school, leaving them illiterate and unskilled, thus prevented from ever achieving self-sufficiency.
Aisha, a 25 year old Yemeni now living in the UK, tells the story of her mother, Bushra, who was forced to marry aged 13. Bushra's husband forbade her to attend secondary school or seek work. Aged 20, she already had four children, while her husband had married an additional wife.
Today, Bushra continues to suffer from health problems caused by her pregnancies, but she considers herself lucky compared to many others. Early teenage pregnancy carries a high risk of life threatening obstructed labour due to the undeveloped narrow hips, in addition to other conditions, such as fistula. In a country with one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the region, early marriages have cost many girls their lives.
Some would argue that legislation is the answer. In Ethiopia, for example, the legal minimum age for marriage was raised to 18 in 2005. However, Jeffrey Edmeades of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) says this has had "very little effect on marriage rates".
Experience from other countries offers alternatives. Initiatives at the grassroots level used to tackle similar problems in Africa "can be adopted by Yemen" says Naana Otoo-Oyortey, the Executive Director of Forward, an African Diaspora women's charity. Forward has set up income-generating schemes for existing child mothers, as well as girls' clubs in schools, dispensing information and advice. In India, a programme called Apni Beti Apna Dhan ('Our Daughters, Our Wealth') works on the basis of cash incentives: a girl and her family can withdraw a sum of money if the girl turns 18 unwed. This initiative, reports The Daily Beast, saw an 18 percent drop in the practice between 1992 and 2006.
Similar ideas are being developed in the Yemeni diaspora. Lubna Maktari of the UK based Independent Yemen Group describes an initiative to educate and empower those outside of the main cities. "Over 70% of the Yemeni population lives in the rural areas, with limited or no electricity" The group wants to broadcast educational programmes on wind-up radios, providing basic skills, as well as support and information.
Laura Dickinson of 'Girls Not Brides', a new global partnership of organisations committed to ending child marriage, says that such initiatives are "definitely helpful" and have already been successfully used in places like Pakistan and Nepal. "This shatters the silence that has long existed around the subject of child marriage. In turn, girls feel there is support out there that they can access". The educational impact is also key - as well as providing girls with more choices, Dickinson says "it helps generate a change in the families' attitudes, removing the idea that girls are a burden."
A shift in thinking is also necessary, says Mashhour. In Yemen, "the main actors that could play a significant role are open-minded Muslim scholars because of their influence on communities. The new leaders and journalists that emerged during the revolution also have an important role in steering public opinion and resisting the radical rhetoric."
Paradoxically for Aisha, it was her father who pushed her towards education rather than marriage. "He insisted that I not only finish primary and secondary schools, but go on to university and study abroad. I think it was because he didn't want me to go through what his wives had experienced." Aisha now has a daughter of her own. "I remember my mother's lack of choice. Today, when my daughter says 'no' to me, I feel so proud of her."

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