x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Despite child marriages, change is underway in Yemen

News reports of Yemen's very young brides don't tell the complete story of what is happening in that country, writes John Henzell.

News of a nine-year-old girl who was due to be married in the former Yemeni capital of Taiz last weekend was just the latest in a depressingly regular series of reports of child brides emerging from that country.

The police convinced the girl’s father to call off the wedding but what was more alarming was that they had no power to do so, because Yemen has no minimum age for marriage.

To many outside Yemen, it just reinforced the stereotype that the country is lagging behind in areas such as gender equality.

Inevitably, these kind of accounts tell only part of the reality. The balance to that is the example of a family I stayed with in the fortified mountain town of Kawkaban in the highlands outside Sanaa a few years ago.

Fahia’s family seemed to be straight out of a particular Yemeni stereotype, and that impression was reinforced as we spent hours chatting and drinking endless cups of tea in his mafrej, the equivalent of a majlis.

Several generations and branches of his family shared the sprawling home and between them, he said, they had 18 Kalashnikov rifles. Three were his, Fahia explained rather matter-of-factly.

“One is from the government [he worked part time in the police force] and two others I bought.”

This was squarely on par for Yemen, which has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world, with one estimate that its 24 million citizens have about 60 million firearms. That figure becomes even more alarming when you take into account that the median age in Yemen is 15.

Fahia seemed quietly bemused about the fuss over owning assault rifles. Kalashnikovs, he explained, are almost an emblematic symbol of adulthood rather than carried to use in anger. The only times he had fired his was to celebrate at weddings and then he only shot over fields rather than in the village.

Based on the ubiquity of Kalashnikovs I saw in Yemen, that rang true.

I knew that shortly before the Arab Spring eventually led to the toppling of autocratic president Ali Abdullah Saleh, there had been an attempt to to reduce the number of guns, so I asked Fahia what he thought of this.

He furrowed his brow briefly then added: “It’s made them more expensive to buy now.”

Most people I met held absolute allegiance to their extended family, slightly less to their wider tribal affiliation and, somewhere in a far-distant third place, considered themselves to be part of a cohesive nation called Yemen.

It helps explain why the pace of change is often glacially slow, because the central government does not have the impact on day-to-day life in the way it does in most developed nations.

It also helps explain why Yemen’s transitional national unity government will face an uphill battle enforcing social conventions such as a minimum age for marriage.

In this, Fahia seemed like an archetype of the traditional ways. I never saw his wife – in keeping with traditional culture, she was sequestered away from the public rooms of the house – but he explained that he was 24 when he got married. His wife was 11.

As I was adjusting to that news, he said that by the time she turned 20, they had seven children.

But that was far from the full story. The two oldest children were both girls and a few years ago, as the elder one approached the age of 10, the patriarchs of other families in the village began to come around to discuss the prospects of arranging their marriages to local men.

“We said ‘No’,” Fahia explained.

The two older daughters had both expressed interest in becoming doctors because Kawkaban did not have one. So Fahia was supporting them as they worked towards studying medicine at university in Sanaa.

In one generation – it was sobering to think that in this case, that involved a span of just over a decade – this family had gone from living a relatively primitive lifestyle to a remarkably modern one.

Every time I hear a new account about a child bride in Yemen, I think about families like Fahia’s and realise that this society is changing.

Inevitably for many observers in the developed world, this social evolution is occurring too slowly to save many very young girls being married to much older men, but I just have to think about Fahia to realise the picture is not as bleak as it first appears.

jhenzell@thenational.ae