Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Early Marriage: Women's Disempowerment in Yemen

Nada al-Ahdal, 11
In Yemen, the custom of early marriage just met a vocal challenger.

Going viral last week was a video of 11-year-old Nada al-Ahdal ranting about her parents’ decision to forcibly marry her off to a much older man.  “What have the children done wrong? Why do you marry them off like that?” she asks the camera rhetorically. Her powerful, candid words touch a delicate nerve amongst Yemenis, some of whom still continue this custom. Just how many? According to a 2006 joint report by the Ministry of Public Health and Population, the Pan-Arab Project for Family Health and UNICEF, early marriage is widely practiced: 52% of Yemeni women and girls are married by the time they turn 18.

The recent video highlights Yemen’s history of early marriage laws and the government’s (and society’s) unwillingness to see the practice fade away. In 1994, the official age for lawful marriage stood at 15. Five years later, the law was abolished on religious grounds, eliminating a minimum age for early marriage.  A brief legislative effort in 2009 to amend the situation was ultimately stalled and aborted; despite that fact that Yemen is party to multiple international treaties that require married couples to be at least 18 years old.  Overall, the issue remains to be addressed, leaving countless children susceptible to premature marriage and the social and economic disadvantages that come with it.

Interviews with Yemeni girls and women reveal some troubling facts. In rural areas, some girls are married off as young as 8 years old. Once married, women that had little education or power in their marriages often had limited control over the timing and spacing of children, which raises the risk of reproductive health problems. Early marriage diminishes the chance that wives will return to school to complete their education, putting them at a distinct social and economic disadvantage. Verbal and physical abuse against women is also prevalent in the documented early marriages in Yemen.

In some ways, Nada al-Ahdal’s words don’t just refute the practice of robbing girls of their childhood innocence; they also underline the crucial “cycle of poverty and early marriage” that plagues tens of millions of women around the world. Poverty and early marriage tend to be mutually reinforcing phenomena: girls born into poverty are more likely to have mothers who ‘transmit intergenerational poverty’ and lack social assets and networks. In addition, early marriages greatly increase the chance that young girls will stay in or plunge into poverty. The cycle, parallel to the strong customary tradition of early marriage most prevalent in rural areas, reinforces young women’s roles as undereducated child-bearers with limited social mobility or agency.

Nada al-Ahdal eloquently defends her decision to flee from arranged marriage in a spirit of children’s rights. But behind her words lies Yemen’s reality of women’s disempowerment and its central place in the country’s greater puzzle of poverty reduction and economic growth. As one of the poorest nations on earth and a hotbed of terrorist activity, Yemen’s poverty—and the cycle of poverty and early marriage for women—reinforce Yemen's destabilization. Instituting a minimum age for marriage could be a key policy for addressing this cycle and help build a more solid foundation for development amidst its National Dialogue Conference

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