Defending Innocence

Yemen's human rights minister Huriya Mashour answers journalists' questions on June 2, 2013 at the central prison compound in Sana'a, Yemen. (AFP/Getty Images)

Yemen's human rights minister Huriya Mashour answers journalists' questions on June 2, 2013 at the central prison compound in Sana'a, Yemen. (AFP/Getty Images)

Racked by poverty and political instability, Yemen has recently earned itself a spot in the international press over its alleged widespread toleration of child marriage. Ever since Nada Al-Ahdal—an 11-year-old school girl from Yemen—took to YouTube, calling on the international community to save her from a forced-marriage, stories of Yemeni child brides have inundated the media, each and every one of them depicting harrowing tales of abuse and broken childhood.

And while many allegations have since proven to be inventions, under-age marriage remains a pressing issue that both activists and politicians have been working to eradicate from Yemen. Ahmad Al-Qurashi, the head of Seyaj—Yemen's most prominent childrens’ rights organization—told reporters: “the husbands of child brides often beat and abuse them, deprive them of food, and force them into sex,” quickly adding, “this is rape under the pretext of Shari'a law.”

Nada has, since her July 8 video testimony, admitted that she never actually faced a forced marriage, only the prospect of an uneducated life, something she revealed she could not bear and thus had to escape from. Speaking to a Lebanese TV channel last week she said, “I didn’t run away just because of the [intention] to marry me off, but because of the ignorance and because I wanted to study.”

Even though Nada’s cry against child marriage was unwarranted, she nevertheless helped put the focus on a very contentious issue in Yemen, one which no government to this day has managed to resolve as it exists at the intersection of the temporal and the spiritual.

According to the Qu'ran, for a marriage to be valid both parties must freely and knowingly express their consent. Islam categorically rejects any union which has been made under duress or any other form of abuse. Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, the highest religious body in the Sunni world, has decreed the following on marriage: “Marriage in Islam is regulated by certain rules; namely, children must reach puberty and maturity so that they can get married.”

While there have undoubtedly been many abuses, Yemen is not a country that glorifies child abuse. In almost all cases poverty and a lack of education have been the common denominators. Because Yemen has failed since its unification in 1990 to set an age limit on marriage, lawyers, activists and politicians have been navigating murky judicial waters, caught between tribal traditions and religious requisites, without ever having found enough political back-up to enact clear legislation.

It looks now as if Yemen has found its children’s champion in human rights minister, Huriya Mashour. A devoted mother and long-standing human rights activist, Mashour told AFP back in September—when an unscrupulous Yemeni journalist claimed (falsely) that an 8-year old school girl from Hajja, Rawan, had succumbed to internal injuries following her wedding night—that she would revive a bill setting the minimum age for marriage at 17, which was originally prevented from becoming law in 2009 by a small group of conservative parliamentarians.

Childrens’ rights activists have already warned that this time they would not allow ultra-conservatives to derail the bill as they did before. One NGO, Equality Now, has already petitioned President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and several other high ranking officials, hoping to gain enough political traction to see through change and support minister Mashour in her campaign. “The failure of the Yemeni government to stop child marriage, including through enactment of the proposed law, is a violation of their international obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) both of which contain provisions against child marriage,” an online statement read.

In a 2011 report, “How Come You Allow Little Girls to Get Married?” Human Rights Watch quoted figures collected from the Yemeni government and the UNICEF stating that in 2006, 52 percent of all girls married before the age of 18, and 14 percent before the age of 15. A 2005 study by Sana'a University noted that, in some rural areas, where poverty and malnutrition are rampant, girls as young as eight are married, more often than not to older men who are in a position to pay generous dowries.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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