x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Yemen at odds on child brides

Conservative MPs have called for a debate on the legal age of marriage after parliament agreed to set the age at 17.

Child bride Nojoud Ali, left, who at 11 years old, sought a divorce from her 30-year-old husband.
Child bride Nojoud Ali, left, who at 11 years old, sought a divorce from her 30-year-old husband.

SANA'A // A handful of conservative MPs have called for a new debate on the legal age of marriage after parliament agreed last month to set the minimum age at 17. Women's rights activists say the latest move is an attempt to halt Yemen's progress. These people are making a big fuss that setting a minimum age for marriage is against Islamic religion," said Hooriah Mashhoor, the vice chair of the Women's National Committee, a government agency. "This is an attempt to cripple Yemen's efforts to improve human rights conditions under the pretext of religious protection and misinterpretation of Islamic teachings. I do call on all civil society activists and the media to support us in our defence of the rights of girls." Mrs Mashhoor said the MPs calling for a reopening of the discussion were not from one specific party but across all groups, including the ruling party. Parliament voted on Feb 11 to amend certain articles in the personal status law, including one that set a minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls. The law stipulates that parents who marry their sons or daughters before the age of 17 will be jailed for one year or fined US$500 (Dh1,800). The vote passed with 100 MPs in favour and 17 against. The decision follows the high profile story of Nojoud Mohammed Ali, 11, who sought a divorce last year from her 30-year-old husband. Nojoud's tale added to a groundswell in favour of raising the age of marriage to 18 in Yemen, one of the world's poorest countries and where more than 50 per cent of girls are married before they reach puberty. However, seven MPs are opposing the outcome of the vote and are calling for the article to be debated again before parliament approves the amended law. Mohammed al Hazmi, an opposition member of parliament, said setting an age limit for marriage was against Islam. "It is our right as legislators to oppose any articles. Now, it not only concerns MPs but also some clerics of Yemen have issued a fatwa banning the setting of a minimum age for marriage. This is a violation of the constitution, which states that Sharia law is the source of all legislation," Mr al Hazmi said. Mr al Hazmi, also a well known mosque preacher in Sana'a, rejected accusations that they wanted to marry girls off at an early age, but rather a call for the respect of Islamic rules. "We are not calling for the marriage of girls as some allege, we are saying do not limit the age of marriage and leave it to the family to decide. The Islamic rule is that the wife should reach puberty and this varies from one place to another depending on nutrition. We think the age of 15, which was already proposed by the jurisprudence committee, is suitable for our situation in Yemen, though in some other situation it can be even 12 years," Mr al Hazmi said. There are no exact figures of how many girls are married off before they reach puberty in Yemen, but a study on early marriage in Yemen, published last year, said 52.1 per cent of girls are underage when they wed compared with 6.7 per cent of boys. The study, conducted by the Gender Development Research and Studies Centre at Sana'a University, showed that the average age for marriage varies from one geographical area to another. It showed that girls in Hodeidah and Hadramout married on average at eight years old, while in Mukalla the average age was 10. In urban areas, the average age was 15. Early marriages are also a reason why a large number of girls drop out of school and why Yemen has such a high fertility rate (about 6.5 children per woman), the study said. Mr al Hazmi said parliament had acquiesced to western demands. "This is not in the religious or national interest of the country; it is rather a western demand that comes through international covenants. If the West calls for freedom, it should leave us and our culture alone. They want us to embrace their beliefs. This is subjugation," he said. "The West might have succeeded in setting an age for marriage but failed to stop girls under 18 falling pregnant. They call for a sexual revolution and early sex education and at the same time as calling for the age of marriage to be raised. This is a contradiction; it is a call for prostitution," Mr al Hazmi added. He said the MPs would continue to protest the marriage age even if it passes into law. "We will not accept it even if the parliament approves it of; we will seek the constitutional court to thwart it," said Mr al Hazmi. Mrs Mashhoor said it would be catastrophic if parliament bowed to an extremist minority. malqadhi@thenational.ae