What if you got engaged tomorrow? If you had to marry an older individual; would you be thrilled or terrified? I know these questions seem pointless to an eighteen plus year old who probably doesn’t have marriage on their mind. However, let me put it into context. What if you were eight years old at the time of your marriage?
You would probably be in grade three or four unperturbed by GSAT. But you’re not living in Jamaica. You’re a female living in Yemen. Here, education is limited, accessible mostly to the elite. It is practically non-existent for poorer females. As a child bride, you’re too young to decide for yourself and too old to live in childhood abandon.
“Death would be a better option for me.” declares an eleven year old Nada al-Ahdal a would-be child bride who escaped the vices of marriage through her relative. This long lasting legal phenomenon became known to the world (and me) through a video uploaded on YouTube where she admonishes her family for trying to marry her off for money.
“What about the innocence of childhood? What have the children done so wrong that you would marry them off like that?” she bemoans. Sadly, this is the reality of most little girls in rural Yemen. In the earlier months of September, an eight year old girl named Rawan reportedly died a few days after being married off to a forty year old man due to the trauma she experienced on her wedding night. This report horrified the world.
Liesl Gerntholtz, the director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, stated in an interview with CNN that “The consequences of child marriage are devastating and long-lasting — girls are removed from school, their education permanently disrupted, and many suffer chronic health problems as a result of having too many children too soon.”
Those who were actually able to escape child marriage through divorce (like Nujood Ali or Reem al Numeri) must suffer the retributions of their society such as the lack of an education or future prospects of re-marriage and family support.
The recourses for the silent screams of innocence lost also prove to be a conundrum. Firstly, it is very difficult for the Yemeni society to accept the pitfalls of their legal system when it pertains to marriage. Yemen is a nation that is deeply tribal and conservative. Additionally, there is friction between legislation and tradition. The parliament wants a bill passed where the official age for a female to enter a marriage is seventeen.
However, conservative parliamentarians argued that this bill would be in contradiction with Islamic doctrine which does not stipulate a particular age for girls to get married and they believe the law to be ‘un-Islamic’ (after all, it is argued that the Islam prophet Mohammed did have a bride he married when she was six and he consummated said marriage when she was nine; he was, at that time, fifty-four years old). The bill was never officially signed into law and is still under vociferous debate.
What are the steps moving forward for Yemeni child brides? According to journalist Hind Aleryani in another CNN article, there is a Yemeni proverb popular in the poorer communities that states: ‘Marry an 8-year-old girl, she’s guaranteed,’ which means the 8-year-old girl is surely a virgin. It’s a disgusting saying and inhumane, but it’s said by everyone and it’s very well-known.”
Nevertheless, there is still reason for hope. The national and global fervor arising from Nada al-Ahdal’s YouTube video and the death of eight year old Rawan displays the shift in attitude amongst the Yemeni populous. The debate continues between the conservative and liberal parliamentarians concerning the passing of the bill prohibiting child marriage. However, the longer it takes for them to reach a definite decision is the longer the stigma of child brides in Yemen will be perpetuated.
I believe solution for child marriages is best summed up by Sada Nasser, a well known Yemeni child advocate in a CNN report. She opines, “Who can build this Yemen?” asked Nasser. “Me? No – all these small girls — they must build Yemen. But all these girls need a good law – a family law.” For the clerics who are still barring the passing of this law she appeals, “I ask them to give these girls mercy.”