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(Beirut) – Widespread child marriage jeopardizes Yemeni girls’ access to education, harms their health, and keeps them second-class citizens, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The government of Yemen should set 18 as the minimum age for marriage to improve girls’ opportunities and protect their human rights.

The 54-page report, “‘How Come You Allow Little Girls to Get Married?’: Child Marriage in Yemen,” documents the lifelong damage to girls who are forced to marry young. Yemeni girls and women told Human Rights Watch about being forced into child marriages by their families, and then having no control over whether and when to bear children and other important aspects of their lives. They said that marrying early had cut short their education, and some said they had been subjected to marital rape and domestic abuse. There is no legal minimum age for girls to marry in Yemen. Many girls are forced into marriage, and some are as young as 8.

“Yemen’s political crisis has left issues such as child marriage at the bottom of the political priority list,” said Nadya Khalife, women’s rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. “But now is the time to move on this issue, setting the minimum age for marriage at 18, to ensure that girls and women who played a major role in Yemen’s protest movement will also contribute to shaping Yemen’s future.”

Over the past months, demonstrators called for a range of reforms, including measures to guarantee equality between women and men. Banning child marriage – a major cause of discrimination and abuse against girls and women – should be a priority for reform, Human Rights Watch said.

Yemeni government and United Nations datashow that approximately 14 percent of girls in Yemen are married before age 15, and 52 percent are married before age 18. In some rural areas, girls as young as 8 are married. Girls are sometimes forced to marry much older men. Boys are seldom forced into child marriages.

The report is based on field research in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, between August and September 2010, including interviews with more than 30 girls and women who were married as children, members of nongovernmental organizations, and staff members at the Health and Education Ministries.

Magda T., whose name has been changed for her protection, told Human Rights Watch: “Ireached sixth grade, and left school to get married. Now, when I see my daughter, I say to myself, ‘Who’s going to teach her?’ Because I can’t. I understood [the value of education] when I got older.”

A 16-year-old girl told Human Rights Watch: “My father insisted that I get married. I wanted to go to college, to become a lawyer, but there’s no chance now because I’m going to have a baby.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed girls who said they were forced to marry young and several who had been removed from school as soon as they reached puberty. A Yemeni study found that many parents remove girls in rural areas from school at age 9 to help in the house, raise their younger siblings, and sometimes to get married. Almost all of the girls and women interviewed said that once they were married, they were unable to continue or complete their education, and many had children soon after marriage.

Research conducted by children’s rights organizations and others such as Save the Childrenhas found that girls with limited education and power in their marriages have little chance of controlling the number and spacing of their children. This increases their risk of reproductive health problems.

Girls and women interviewed also said that they were often exposed to gender-based violence, including domestic abuse and sexual violence. Some girls and women told Human Rights Watch that their husbands, in-laws, and other members of the husband’s household verbally or physically assaulted them. Married girls and women in Yemen often live with their husband’s extended family.

Tawakkol Karman, the Yemeni activist who will receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 10, 2011, along with two Liberian women leaders for their work to advance women’s rights, has criticized the Yemeni government’s failure to ban child marriage. In an opinion piece published in 2010, Karman wrote, “There is a vast space in our Islamic Law heritage for reaching consensus on adopting the age of 18 as a minimum age for marriage.”

Yemen’s future government has a genuine opportunity to show its commitment to gender equality and to protecting the rights of all its citizens by addressing the issue, Human Rights Watch said. The government should take steps legislatively to set the minimum age for marriage at 18 and promote public awareness of the harm child marriage causes. The Yemeni government and its international donors should also boost girls’ and women’s access to education, reproductive health information and services, and protection from domestic violence.

“International donors invest millions of dollars on education and health reform in Yemen,” Khalife said. “Without a ban on child marriage, none of the international aid will prevent girls from being forced to leave school and from the health risks of child marriage.”

The Yemeni government actually has regressed in addressing the issue, Human Rights Watch said. In 1999 Yemen’s parliament, citing religious grounds, abolished the legal minimum age for marriage for girls and boys, which was then 15. In 2009, a majority in parliament voted to set 17 as the minimum age. However, a group of lawmakers, contending that reinstating a minimum age would be contrary to Sharia (Islamic law), used a parliamentary procedure to stall the draft law indefinitely.

Many othercountries in the Middle East and North Africa recognize Sharia as a source of law, but nearly all have set a minimum age for marriage for both boys and girls; many setting the marriage age at 18 or higher, conforming to international standards and treaties that define a child as anyone under 18. United Nations treaty monitoring bodies that oversee implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) have recommended a minimum age of 18 for marriage.

Yemen is party to a number of international treaties and conventions that explicitly prohibit child marriage and commit states parties to take measures to eliminate the practice. These include the CRC, CEDAW, the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriage, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

“Girls should not be forced to be wives and mothers,” Khalife said. “As Yemen undergoes political change, leaders should seize the opportunity to correct an injustice that does enormous harm and set the country on a new course of social justice, including equality for women and girls.” 

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