Will Yemeni Young Girls be Protected from Child Marriages?

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East in terms of GDP per capita and its population suffers from the social control that often accompanies socio-economic destitution.1 With the GDP per capita at $2,500, it equals less than half of the next poorest Middle Eastern country’s GDP per capita, Syria with $5,100.2 Numbers like this have been contributing to social unrest for many years. The Yemeni revolt overthrew the 30-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, predominantly for economic and political reasons such as corruption, unemployment, and the presumed rise to power of Saleh’s son.3 With Saleh now formally out of power, unemployment rates are still destructively high at 35%, 17.5% live on less than $1.25 a day, and far more live on less than $2.4

Image courtesy of Stephanie Sinclair, © 2013, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Stephanie Sinclair, © 2013, some rights reserved

The human rights violations in Yemen are vast and varied, yet the most common victims are the ones that have an almost non-existent representation in government and national policy, women and children. Yemen is ranked 152nd out of 152 countries in the Gender Inequality Index and 136th out of 136 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index.5 There are few protections of their rights within the law and as they operate under Sharia law, a Sharia committee is in place to review and oppose draft laws that are not in accordance with the Qur’an. One of the foremost issues plaguing young women and children in Yemen is child marriage. In 2009, the Sharia committee opposed a draft law that would raise the minimum age of marriage for girls to 18. They argued that this was not in accordance with Islamic law, as the Qur’an does not state a minimum marriage age for girls.6 In fact, as of 1994 they had a minimum marriage age of 15 then regressed and in 1999 they removed a minimum age completely and left the decision up to the parent’s discretion.7

Yemen is one of two countries worldwide that does not have legislation on the minimum age of marriage, the other being Saudi Arabia, a rich country, but one that has notoriously unequal wealth distribution.8 One in three girls in Yemen are married before 18 and this reality becomes even more frightening when looking at the number of girls married between 8 and 12. Though Yemen’s acceptance of child marriages is disconcerting enough, it is the prepubescent consummation of these marriages that truly illuminates the horror of these circumstances. These marriages almost always involve men that are significantly older than the child, stories fill international media about girls as young as 8 dying from internal injuries due to intercourse on her wedding night.9

These shocking stories unfortunately reveal just the tip of the iceberg. The girls that survive their wedding night are repeatedly subjected to marital rape, as they have no understanding, familiarity, or control over how their body is used. They are taken out of school and, if puberty has been reached, impregnated soon after marriage. This results in little education, a perpetuation of these harmful customs, subordinate positions in the family, increased risk of intimate partner violence, HIV infection, dangerous pregnancies, and little to no opportunity to prepare for child rearing or life skills for themselves and their children. These are simply the most restrained of examples. When you consider the prevalence of psychological damage, depression, and suicides that have cast such a dark yet clearly ignorable shadow on such a custom, the suffering only begins to become clearer.

As with many traditions that flourish at the expense of human dignity and well-being, the practices stem from financial motivations. The girls are often married to men much wealthier than her family and therefore the monetary transaction between him and her parents is at the forefront of their motivation. Countries such as Yemen, with so little GDP per capita and social infrastructure to support the destitute population, destructive traditions like this are unregulated and seen by the families as socially and ritually necessary, as well as necessary to survival, or at least survival of a certain standard of living.

This calls into question the practice in Saudi Arabia, a very wealthy country where child marriage is still permitted. The vast differences in these two countries showcase the complexity of this shared perspective. The scales in which these child marriages are conducted are quite different, Saudi girls being bought for tens of thousands of dollars, whereas Yemeni girls are traded for a small fraction of that or even to pay past debts and trades. So, it is easy to see the financial thread pumping blood into these human transactions. Yet, where one is receiving money, there is another paying, so the desire for physically underdeveloped, mentally submissive, and vulnerable girls is the driving market force here. And unfortunately this reality exists across religions, cultures, and GDPs per capita. This is why the government should step in and protect their people.

The governments are failing their citizens, their future generations, and, if their concern is economic success, their potential for an economically productive half of the population. If their only concern is not economic success and they have an inclination for moral progress and responsibility, then perhaps the extreme mental and physical destruction this practice causes their young female population can drive the parliamentary decision on this draft law that is to be voted on in the coming months. The draft law is similar to the one proposed in 2009 and an underage marriage results in fines and prison sentences for those involved in the transaction. This law also addresses the concurrent practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which is carried out to ensure the chastity of the girl and assure the husband of her virginity. These fines, at least in Yemeni child marriages would often outweigh the initial transaction amount so even if the family’s motivation is not hinged on their child’s safety or concern for her dignity and future well-being, the monetary risks would dwarf the potential reward.

The custom of FGM deserves equal exposure and the discussion of both child marriage and FGM and their mutual causality desperately needs international focus and action. Just the health risks of these joint traditions spells a life of mental anguish, depression, 50% increased chance of stillbirths, increased chance of death in childbirth, death from intercourse, hemorrhage, infections, domestic violence etc. And I daresay that the health risks are not the most traumatic aspect of it all, but realizing that you hold a place in the world that is quantifiable and that amount is increased by the physical disfigurement of your body at the hands of your family and then decided by a man paying to fulfill a sexual desire. A young, female, Yemeni life is a perpetually cyclic existence of submission, objectification, and helplessness. Therefore, the passing of this draft law should be of the utmost international concern and if opposed once again, this issue should be treated as an humanitarian crisis. If opposed, this should exemplify the severely suppressed nature of women’s rights particularly present and deadly in rural and impoverished areas of the world. If passed, the law has to be more than just a promise on paper.


[1] “Poorest Countries in the Middle East.” Aneki.com. Accessed November 16, 2014. http://www.aneki.com/poorest_middle_east.html.

2 Ibid.

3 “UPDATE 1-Protests Erupt in Yemen, President Offers Reform.” | News by Country | Reuters. January 20, 2011. Accessed November 16, 2014. http://af.reuters.com/article/tunisiaNews/idAFLDE70J2BZ20110120?pageNumber=2&virtualBrandChannel=0.

4 “Statistics.” UNICEF. Accessed November 16, 2014. http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/yemen_statistics.html.

5 “Global Gender Gap Report 2013.” October 24, 2013. Accessed November 16, 2014. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2012.pdf.

6 “Yemen: End Child Marriage | Human Rights Watch.” Yemen: End Child Marriage | Human Rights Watch. Accessed November 16, 2014. http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/04/27/yemen-end-child-marriage.

7 “Yemen: Child Marriage Spurs Abuse of Girls and Women | Human Rights Watch.” Yemen: Child Marriage Spurs Abuse of Girls and Women | Human Rights Watch. Accessed November 16, 2014. http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/12/08/yemen-child-marriage-spurs-abuse-girls-and-women.

8 Abbad, Nawal, and The Opinions Expressed in This Commentary Are Solely Those of Nawal Ba Abbad. “Opinion: Time to Stop Child Marriage in Yemen and Give Girls Back Their Childhood.” CNN. March 17, 2014. Accessed November 16, 2014. http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/17/opinion/opinion-yemen-child-marriage/.

9 Gulfnews.com,. 2014. ”65% Of Females In Yemen Marry Underage”. http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/yemen/65-of-females-in-yemen-marry-underage-1.1282224.

Leave a Reply