Child Marriage Around the World

Worldwide, more than 51 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are married. This figure is based on demographic health surveys conducted in various countries around the world that document marriages of persons above 15 years. The total figure for child marriage is certainly higher because these official statistics do not survey married girls who are under 15. The Population Council, an international organization that conducts research on HIV/AIDS, gender, and poverty and youth in order to improve reproductive health services, noted that according to the 2006 Demographic Health Surveys, one in seven girls worldwide would marry before her 15th birthday.

The majority of these young girls live in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, often in places characterized by persistent poverty and low levels of economic development. Child marriage is especially common in countries where the majority of the population live on less than US$2 per day, and in countries with a low gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Research conducted by international organizations found that child marriage was also common in societies in which families premised their “honor” on daughters’ virginity before marriage, leading to early marriages of daughters to prevent premarital sex.

Child Marriage in Yemen

Child marriage is a common practice in Yemen in both rural and urban areas. Girls may be married as early as 12 or 13, especially if the girl is wedded to a close relative. In rural areas, such as Hadhramawt and Hudaida, girls may be married as young as eight, and in Mukalla around 10. The age of marriage in urban areas is slightly higher. Of the 31 girls and women Human Rights Watch interviewed in Sanaa, all but one were married between the ages of 12 and 17, with the majority married before age 15.

In 2005, Yemen ranked 14th (tied with Liberia) on a list of 20 worldwide “hot spots” for child marriage compiled by the International Center for Research on Women, with 48.4 percent of girls married before reaching the age of 18. According to the Yemeni government and UNICEF 2006 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, a nationally representative survey of 3,586 households, almost 52 percent of Yemeni girls were married before the age of 18 and14 percent were married before the age of 15.

Our research and that of many other experts and organizations underscores that child marriage deprives girls of their childhood and adolescence by burdening them with marriage, childbirth, and other adult responsibilities. It curtails their personal freedom and denies them the opportunity to develop a full sense of identity. It risks harming their physical health, including their reproductive and sexual health, and increases their risk of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of husbands and in-laws. Lastly, it often denies them the opportunity to access education, leaving them economically vulnerable, unable to earn a living. The negative consequences of child marriage are not limited to the girls’ childhood but, as this report shows, can persist throughout their adult lives too.

A 2005 study on child marriage in Yemen explained that there are four principle factors that place girls at risk of child marriage in Yemen and in similar countries where child marriage is common. First, many very poor families view young girls as a financial burden, prompting them to marry their daughters off to alleviate that burden. Second, some families also see their daughters as an economic asset because of the payment of a dowry, in the form of money or gifts offered to the bride by the groom prior to marriage. According to article 33 of Yemen’s Personal Status Law, a dowry is a woman’s possession and she can do whatever she pleases with it. However, article 34 notes that a woman’s guardian may ask to accelerate or delay her dowry payment so long as she is in agreement. Marrying an older man often means a higher dowry, especially if the girl is young. Some families believe that marrying their daughters is a means of providing her with a more secure future. Parents who are unable to financially provide for their children believe that by marrying them they give their daughters a chance for a better life and better prospects for the future.

Third, in traditional societies like Yemen, marriage can also be regarded by the family as a means of protecting girls from pre-marital sex, which would undermine family honor.

And lastly, sometimes girls themselves see marriage as their only option, especially those who leave school at an early age. Fifteen-year-old Sawsan from Hudaida told us:

I only went to school until I was ten years old. I used to like to read and write. My [future] husband wanted me [for marriage] and everyone agreed in the family, so I agreed. I wanted to get married because it’s better than nothing.

Girls who were not married at an early age often found it difficult to get married when they were older. Fawzia told Human Rights Watch:

People here say that if a girl doesn’t get married by 20, she loses her chance at marriage. 

Government Failure to Protect Children from Child Marriage

The government of Yemen has failed to protect children from child marriage by not setting and enforcing a clear minimum age for marriage, and by failing to provide women and girls with protection from, forced marriages and marital abuse, or to provide them with opportunities for redress. In fact, the government made matters worse by repealing the previous legal age of 15 for marriage in 1999, making it legal for a child of any age to be married.

Birth and marriage registrations are essential components of combating child marriage, as they provide proof of the age of the child at the time of marriage. Registration of births and marriages in Yemen is compulsory, but rarely enforced.

Another problem is that conflicting ages of majority in Yemen’s Personal Status Law and civil law render the definition of a child in Yemen inconsistent (see below), making it difficult to legally protect children’s human rights as stipulated by international human rights law.

Minimum Age for Marriage and Current Legal Developments

Prior to unification in 1990, North Yemen’s Personal Status Law set the minimum age for marriage at 15.In the south, it was 16. In 1994, 15 became the age of marriage for all of Yemen.

In 1999, further changes to the Personal Status Law occurred. A provision allowing forcibly married girls to divorce while maintaining their right to maintenance was repealed. Another amendment ostensibly protected married girls from being forced into sex by stipulating that the husband cannot have sexual intercourse with his bride “until she has reached puberty, even if she exceeds 15 years of age.” However, the law only takes a girl’s physical ability to have sex into account, rather than her physical, mental, and emotional maturity to handle a sexual relationship, childbirth, and child-rearing. In practice Yemeni girls are often married immediately after puberty, whether this occurs at 11, 12, or older. In some cases documented by Human Rights Watch, girls were married before their first menstrual period.

Since 2000, the Women’s National Committee (WNC), a government body tasked with recommending policies and strategies for the development of women’s health and education,  has sought to re-introduce a minimum age for marriage, without success.

In 2008 Nujood Ali, who was married at the age of nine to a man in his thirties, became the youngest known divorcee in Yemen, at the age of10. Her husband repeatedly beat and raped her, until one day she decided to go to a courthouse to speak to a judge. With the assistance of a lawyer, Shada Nasser, Nujood was granted a divorce, but had to repay her husband US$200. Her husband was not penalized for abusing or raping her. Nujood’s case highlighted the sexual abuse and domestic violence some married Yemeni girls experience. After Nujood broke her silence about her marriage, more young girls came forward demanding a divorce from their husbands for similar reasons. In addition, nongovernmental organizations and local media also began to highlight cases of violence against young married girls. Nujood’s story captured international attention and prompted the WNC to present amendments to Yemen’s Supreme Council for Women’s Affairs in 2008, which is headed by the Prime Minister. The Supreme Council attempted to introduce a draft bill to set an age for marriage, but the Sharia legislative committee in parliament rejected such a proposal. The WNC advocated for amendments specifying 18 as the minimum age for marriage. According to Hooria Mashoor, former deputy director of the WNC, “extreme groups in society and in parliament that are against amending the law” prevented the amendments from being tabled for parliamentary debate.

In February 2009, the WNC again presented draft legislation on child marriage, specifying a minimum age for marriage at 18, to the Supreme Council for Women’s Affairs, which then submitted it to the Council of Ministers. The Council of Ministers, which serves as the supreme executive and administrative authority of the state, agreed on the WNC draft legislation and submitted it to the Ministry of Justice, which then submitted it to parliament.

On February 11, 2009, a majority in parliament agreed to set the minimum age of marriage at 17, instead of the proposed 18. The parliamentarians also drafted an exception allowing girls under 17 to marry if a judge deemed it to be in the best interest of the child. Any adult who violated the law would be penalized with a jail sentence of up to a year, or a fine of up to 100,000 riyals (approximately US$469), and any person who witnessed the marriage of children, female or male, under the indicated age, would also be penalized with a jail sentence of no more than six months and a fine of no more than 50,000 riyals (approximately US$234).

Twenty-three parliamentarians from the powerful opposition party Islah and from the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) opposed the amended article on the grounds that setting a minimum age for marriage was against their interpretation of Islamic principles.

A majority of parliamentarians voted in favor of setting the age of marriage at 17, but proponents failed to muster a majority for provisions dealing with the punishment of parents or guardians who give their daughters into marriage before the prescribed age. A few days after the vote, parliamentarians opposing the reform requested further review by the Sharia Legislative Committee, which reviews drafts laws to ensure agreement with Sharia law, recommending that no age for marriage should be set.

In March 2010, parliamentarians again tabled the draft bill for debate. The same conservative members of parliament voiced sharp criticism, and the draft bill was again referred to the Sharia Legislative Committee. On April 10, 2010, the Sharia Legislative Committee issued a 14 page document citing religious reasons for not setting an age of marriage. The document stated that article 15 is in contradiction to the Quran, Sunnah, the Constitution, and the interest of the child. This maneuver effectively killed the bill for this session of parliament.

On March 21, 2010 a number of clerics issued a fatwa (a legal pronouncement in Islam, issued by a religious law specialist on a specific issue), which stated that defining an age for marriage is contrary to Sharia and that “God had legitimized marriage to safeguard births and their protection.” The fatwaincluded evidence of instances where prominent women in Islam were married at a young age, specifically Aisha, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives. Those opposing the law on minimum age for marriage claim she married at the age of nine, but other Muslim scholars put her age at marriage closer to 20. The dispute results from different interpretations of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (Hadith) and his companions, which Islamic law takes to be normative.

Two days after the fatwa appeared women opposing a minimum age of marriage demonstrated in front of parliament. They were countered by demonstrators in favor of a minimum age. Many of those who opposed the bill were from al-Iman (Faith) University, financed and run by Sheikh Abdul Majidal-Zindani. Al-Zindani is one of the founding members of Islah. The Islah party was formed in 1990 by members of the GPC and by the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood. The GPC and Islah share tribal influence and personal connections to businesses, and are both rivals of the Yemeni Socialist Party, from the former south. Today, Islah is the leading opposition group in Yemen, and its party ideology has shifted from one focusing on religious and moral issues to one much more accepting of a democratic system, and secular political parties. Rifts within the party have brought about two competing camps: one which is moderate, and another which is Salafi, or hard-line Islamist. Al-Zindani has strong views on the exclusion of women from senior governmental positions, and other issues pertaining to women, including child marriage. His argument against a law banning child marriage is that it is un-Islamic and a threat to the culture and society of Yemen.

In October 2010 parliamentary proponents and opponents clashed verbally and physically over the draft law during a parliamentary session. This time the debate was about whether or not to punish guardians who marry their daughters before puberty.

Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa region are predominantly Muslim, and a majority of these countries recognize Sharia as a source of law. Almost all have set a minimum age for marriage for both boys and girls. For instance, in Iraq and Egypt the age is 18 for both sexes. In 2008, Egypt raised the age for girls from 16 to 18.

Birth and Marriage Registrations

Birth and marriage registrations are essential components of combating child marriage as they assist in proving the age of the spouses at the time of marriage. Mandatory marriage registration, which is the case in Yemen, can help prevent unlawful child marriages. In 2006 only 22 percent of births were registered, despite compulsory registration. The Yemen Statistics Yearbook for 2009, compiled by the Central Statistical Organization, showed that for 20 governorates, 9,120 marriages were recorded in 2001, 10,934 for 2002, and only 600 marriages for 2003. Considering that Yemen has a population of 23 million, it is obvious that the number of actual marriages far exceed those recorded.

According to the presidential decree on civil status and civil registration, amended in 2003, all births must be registered with the Ministry of Health within 60 days. Similarly, all marriage contracts must be registered at the Ministry of Justice within 15 days. The registrations are then sent to the Department of Civil Status at the Ministry of Interior. Article 14 of the Personal Status Law also requires that the person who draws up a marriage contract, the husband, and the wife’s guardian register the marriage certificate with the specialized entity within one month. The certificate must include necessary information, such as the ages of bride and groom, their national identification numbers, if available, and the amount of dowry offered to the bride.

But births and marriages are rarely registered, and there are no penalties imposed on those who do not comply with the law. This inadequate enforcement of legal provisions coupled with lack of awareness about the importance of registering births and marriages has resulted in difficulties in gathering accurate data on Yemen’s population, and determining the ages of children.

Definition of a Child

A precise legal definition of a child is essential to ensure a coherent application of laws protecting children. In Yemeni law, there is no single legal definition of a child. Article 2 of the Law on the Rights of the Child defines a child as “every human being below the age of 18 years unless majority is attained earlier.”According to Yemen’s Personal Status Law, the age of maturity (sin al rushud) for boys is set at ten, or the attainment of puberty, whichever is earlier, and for girls, at nine years, or the attainment of puberty, and in all cases, any person over 15 years is considered to have reached age of maturity. However, Yemen’s civil law (Qanun al-Madani) sets the age of maturity at the age of 15 years, with no exceptions. Without a coherent definition of a child throughout Yemeni law, children may not fully enjoy the protection of their rights under international law.


– Human Rights Watch

About the Author

CRACO is an NGO that is committed to making the Child included and visible. We ensure that matters relating to children are not swept under the carpet but brought to the attention of the world, so that necessary actions can be taken to address such matters for the best interest of the the children. We keep you regularly informed of news and stories concerning children and women around the world.

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