(Sanaa) – The Yemeni government should expedite passage of a draft Child Rights Law establishing 18 as Yemen’s minimum marriage age. On April 27, 2014, Legal Affairs Minister Mohammad Makhlafi submitted the proposed law to Prime Minister Mohammad Basindawa, who should ensure a cabinet review and submit it to parliament for prompt passage.
“The draft minimum age law is a real beacon of hope for the thousands of Yemeni girls vulnerable to being married off while still children,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The government should act quickly on this measure and develop enforcement mechanisms to prevent even more girls from becoming victims of early and forced marriage.”
Some 52 percent of Yemeni girls are married – often to much older men – before age 18, and 14 percent before age 15, according to United Nations and Yemeni government data from 2006. Girls who marry young 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. Girls who do not want to marry are often forced to do so by their families. Yemen is one of the few countries in the region now without any legal minimum age for marriage.
The draft law in article 46(c) requires the official filling out the marriage contract to verify the age of both the man and the woman. Article 242(a) provides criminal penalties of between two months and one year in prison and a fine of up to YER 400,000 (US$1,860) for any authorized person who draws up a marriage contract knowing that at least one party is under 18. Any witnesses or signatories to the marriage contract, including the parents or other guardians, who know that at least one party is under 18 face a prison sentence of between one and three months and a fine of between YER 100,000 (US$460) and 250,000 (US$1,160).
The draft law also addresses other important children’s rights issues. Articles 13(b) and 242(b) prohibit the practice of female genital mutilation, providing criminal penalties of between one and three years in prison and a fine of up to YER 1,000,000 (US$4,644) to those who carry out the cutting. Articles 162 and 250(b) prohibit the use or recruitment of child soldiers, providing a fine of up to300,000 (US$1,393). Articles 150 to 157 and 247 prohibit child labor in line with international legal standards, providing fines for violators of up to YER 200,000 (US$930).
The rules of Yemen’s transitional government require the prime minister to call for a review of the draft law by the Council of Ministers. Once the council approves the draft, the prime minister submits the law for a parliamentary vote. If the parliament does not reach consensus, the rules of Yemen’s transitional legal regime provide that the president could declare the law in effect himself.
The Yemeni government nearly passed similar legislation in 2009. Parliament was then scheduled to vote on a minimum age for marriage provision, but a small conservative bloc sought and obtained an additional review by the parliamentary Sharia Committee, which reviews draft laws to assess their compatibility with Sharia (Islamic law). After the committee objected to the draft law on religious grounds, neither parliament nor the president took further steps to adopt the law.
Should the Sharia Committee again oppose the draft law, the president can unilaterally declare it in effect under the legal regime established in 2011 to facilitate a peaceful transition of power.
The draft law to establish a minimum marriage age is an effort to implement a recommendation made in January by Yemen’s national dialogue conference, a 565-member forum created to establish the building blocks of a new constitution. The recommendation called for the government to set a minimum age for marriage at 18, in accordance with international standards, and for criminal sanctions for anyone who forces a child to marry.
Abdulwahab al-Anisi, the secretary general of Islah, the country’s largest Islamist party, told Human Rights Watch after the close of the national dialogue that his party recognized the clear language of the recommendation and would support the passage of a law at the governmental and parliamentary stages.Some of the party’s members strongly opposed the minimum age law in 2009.
Human Rights Watch has documented the severe and long-lasting harm to Yemeni girls forced by their families to marry, in some cases when they are as young as eight. Yemeni girls and women told Human Rights Watch that marrying early meant that they lost control over their lives, including the ability to decide whether and when to bear children, that it had cut short their education, and some said they had been subjected to marital rape and domestic abuse.
Yemen is party to a number of international conventions that explicitly prohibit or have been interpreted to prohibit child marriage and commit governments to take measures to eliminate the practice. In September 2013, the UN Human Rights Council called on Yemen to end early and forced marriages.
Many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa that recognize Sharia as a source of law have set the marriage age at 18 or higher, with some allowing exceptions in limited circumstances. These include: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
In addition to passing the law, and ensuring that police intervene to stop marriages that violate the law, Yemen’s judicial authorities should pursue criminal cases against spouses, parents, and local authorities who continue the practice.
The government should develop a public campaign to raise awareness, particularly in rural communities, among religious leaders, medical professionals, and local officials about the harmful health and other consequences of child marriage for girls and women, Human Rights Watch said.
“The prime minister should provide strong leadership to get the minimum age for marriage and the child rights law on the books,” Houry said. “There’s no excuse for further delays in passing this desperately needed legislation.”