Students stage a protest denouncing child marriage in Sana’a, Yemen. Saudi Arabia and Yemen are the only Arab countries in the Middle East that do not have laws that set a minimum age for marriage. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: Two little girls aged eight and nine celebrated last year a Sana’a court ruling that allowed them to annul their marriages.

A third young girl in the second grade was about to marry a man in his thirties when the civil society groups intervened and stopped the wedding a few months ago in the southern part of the country. Unconfirmed reports said an 8-year-old Yemen girl died after being married to a man in his forties.

Child marriages are rampant in Yemen. A study revealed that the bridal age in more than half of the finalised marriages in Yemen was under the age of 15. According to the study conducted by Sana’a University, only 7 per cent of “husbands” were under the age of 18.  

It also added that nearly 65 per cent of females are married “underage,” while that number rises to 70 per cent in rural areas.

Despite efforts to put an end to “this catastrophe”, experts and activists differ on whether setting, by law, a minimum age for marriage will solve the problem. Some say the issue has been receiving considerable attention and growing approval to setting a minimum age for marriage that will be agreed on by the society.

Others disagree.

“The issue is related to the country’s culture,” said Yousuf Abu Ras, head of the Yemeni Organisation for economic and social development, one of the NGOs in the country.

For the efforts to change the child marriage to succeed there is a need to change peoples’ perceptions and not just make a legal or legislation amendment, he told Gulf News.

“Any legal amendment will come from above, and it doesn’t reach the roots of the society. The issue (tackle child marriage) needs more awareness and enlightenment efforts, (to succeed)” Abu Ras said.

Even within the same Islamic groups, people differ in their opinion on a minimum age group. There are “religious extremist and traditional” powers that refuse any legal move to set a minimum age for girl, arguing that there is no minimum age for marriage in Islamic law.

“Accordingly, these groups that have popular basis don’t want to lose these bases by supporting the move.”

But other activists believe the light shed on the issue locally and internationally after reporting some cases as boosted the efforts to put an end to the child marriage. It also united more people in their rejection to child brides.

“Until now there is no social opposition, because of the massive damage endured in the past few years on different levels, including social and economic,” said Youssef Abdou, a consultant with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Yemen.

He described numbers of child marriages as “scary” figures, and said they led to a decline in the health indicators of mothers and children in the country, one of the most improvised countries in the world.

With an infant death rate of 51 deaths in early 1,000 live births and a maternal death risk of 200 deaths in every 100,000 live births, infant mortality and maternal mortality rates are high in Yemen.

Abdou noted that child marriages is also related to high illiteracy rates in Yemen and the high number of people living under the poverty line. Many poor families receive some “generous” dowry, while they get rid of an extra member in the family to feed.

Setting a minimum age of marriage of 18 years for girls in Yemen was among the main recommendations of national dialogue held in Yemen as part of the Gulf initiative to end the tension in the country after people took to the streets to demand change.

Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, according to the initiative, handed over the power to his deputy, Abed Rabou Mansour Hadi, and a national dialogue was held.

And even if it is approved, the law of minimum age needs nearly two years to come into effect, experts and activists said.

Until then, Yemen and Saudi Arabic remain to be the only two Arab countries that don’t have a minimum age for marriage.