Yemen is likely to vote on a comprehensive 'Child Rights Act' over the coming months, which would ban both child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).
After years of pressure from both national and international organisations, including Equality Now, on April 27th, Mohammad Makhlafi, Minister for Legal Affairs, submitted the proposed wide-ranging legislation to Mohammad Basindawa, Yemeni Prime Minister. If approved by Basindawa, the next step would be a review by the cabinet's council of ministers. Upon agreement by the cabinet, it would go to a parliamentary discussion and vote.
The new law proposes to establish the international human rights standard of 18 as the minimum age of marriage and impose fines on guardians, signatories, marriage officials and any other witnesses who have knowledge that either marriage participant is under this age.
Now that the 'National Dialogue' has been completed - a lengthy process which aimed to make recommendations for a new Yemeni constitution - it is heartening to see that its outcomes, including setting a minimum age of marriage, are being translated into official legislation. This new push has been endorsed by Hooria Mashhour, Minister for Human Rights, while others in government have also taken a strong leadership role. However, successful passage of the law is far from certain and a previous 2009 attempt to fix the minimum age of marriage for girls at 17 was blocked by traditional and religious leaders and the parliament's Shariah committee. On this occasion, the president has increased power and can overrule. It is unclear whether or not he would do so, but the process has shown more general support for protecting girls from early marriage.
According to the United Nations, over half of Yemeni girls are married by the age of 18. This serious human rights violation is extremely harmful to a girl's physical, psychological and emotional health and well-being, but also means that her education and future prospects are severely compromised. Complications during sexual intercourse and childbirth put the girl at particularly high risk of harm and even maternal mortality.
Furthermore, child marriage does not take place in a vacuum, as detailed in Equality Now's new report on 'Protecting the Girl Child: Using the Law to End Child, Early and Forced Marriage and Related Human Rights Violations'. This comprehensive report illustrates how such marriages are part a continuum of abuse and discrimination experienced by a young girl - often linked with related abuses such as sexual violence and FGM. When a child bride gives birth, the violence and discrimination continues for future generations until the cycle of abuse is broken.
With this is mind, we welcome additional articles in the 'Child Rights Act', which propose banning FGM, which affects 23% of Yemen's female population - as well as other forms of violence against children such as child labour.
In dealing with the rights of the girl child in a holistic way, Yemen is recognising that an interlinked approach is essential to ensuring that girls at risk are protected at an early stage from a lifetime of abuse. However, such a holistic approach would mean that the health, education and justice systems need to be adequately resourced not only financially, but also in terms of each actor knowing what role and responsibility they have in ensuring that the law is effectively implemented and that girls are properly educated about their rights.
In recent months, neighbouring countries have made moves in both directions. In the Sindh province of Pakistan - the part of the country with the highest child marriage prevalence - the local assembly voted in favour of a law, establishing 18 as the minimum age of marriage. Regulations in Saudi Arabia were allegedly drafted last year but we have yet to hear confirmation of when these might be realised.
Unfortunately, proposed legislative changes in the region have not all been positive. A potential Iraqi draft law, which would permit nine year old girls to marry, has at least been shelved for the moment. However, moves like this are indicative of the possibility of the rights of women and girls to also slide backwards, at a time when huge strides are being made in the right direction.
It is hoped that in Yemen, the various authorities will seize the new opportunity for major advances to be made - not only for its female population - but for the entire country. As long as Yemeni women and girls are at risk of violence and discrimination, lives are destroyed and potential is wasted. We hope that on this occasion, traditional and religious leaders will ensure that the law is passed by the Shariah committee and help to make a resounding step forward towards a new future for Yemen, where the rights of girls are firmly at the forefront.