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Dispatches: Ending Child Marriage in Yemen
January 22, 2014

Yesterday, a 565-member forum in Yemen, created to help establish the building blocks for a new constitution, took the major step of releasing a report that recommended a minimum age for marriage of 18 for both boys and girls.

The forum, which began in March 2013, brought together many elements of Yemeni society, including women, youth, and civil society activists. The 300-page report issued yesterday contains human rights recommendations that could improve the lives of Yemeni women and children in particular.

Child marriage is a major problem in Yemen, where according to UN and Yemeni government data from 2006, 52 percent of girls are married – often to much older men – before age 18, and 14 percent before 15. If the girls don’t want to marry, their families generally force them. Girls who marry often drop out of school, are more likely to die in childbirth, and face a higher risk of physical and sexual abuse than women who marry at 18 or later. Until now, Yemen has been one of the few countries in the region without any minimum age for marriage.

The forum recommended criminal sanctions for anyone who forces a child to marry. In 2012, President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi issued a decree obliging the government to implement the final report’s recommendations.

The forum's report also recommends that any new constitution guarantee equality between men and women, and that the state pass the necessary laws to support this. It also prohibits discrimination because of gender, race, religion, opinion, and even social or economic status. The report recommends new laws designed to protect a plethora of rights, including the right to water, food, education and health care. It also states that Yemen respect the international human rights conventions that it has already ratified.

Now the heavy lifting begins for Yemen. There is a palpable sense of hope among many Yemenis and Yemen rights activists I’ve spoken to that these recommendations, if adopted, will usher in a new respect for and entrenchment of the most basic human rights. That said, there are many conservative Salafis and Islamist-leaning parties in Yemen who will push aggressively against enshrining these types of changes in Yemen’s constitution.

In the coming days, Hadi will nominate members of the constitutional drafting committee, which is mandated with turning the report’s recommendations into constitutional provisions that will be acceptable to all Yemenis, including southerners and other marginalized groups. The rest of the recommendations will need to be implemented by the government and parliament, and civil society needs to play a key role in pushing both to act swiftly and effectively.