23 Monday, December 2013

Give the gift of protection to a girl in Yemen–in 30 seconds

Roughly 27 child brides are forced into marriage in communities around the world every minute of every day.

But it takes only 30 seconds (seriously, we timed it) to sign Equality Now’s petition calling on the government of Yemen to enact a law establishing a minimum age of marriage. It’s a key first step to protecting the rights of girls in a country where fully one-third will be married as children.

Nujood Ali is an international heroine for women's rights and Too Young to Wed's poster child. Now divorced, she is back home with her family and attending school again. This image also appears at the Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment exhibit in D.C. Photo © 2012 Stephanie Sinclair / VII
Nujood Ali is an international heroine for women’s rights and Too Young to Wed’s poster child. Now divorced, she is back home with her family and attending school again. This image also appears at the Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment exhibit in D.C. Photo © 2012 Stephanie Sinclair / VII

Some of you may remember the moving story of Nujood Ali, who was 10 in 2008 when she bravely fled from her much older abusive husband to the courthouse in Sanaa—where she asked for, and was ultimately granted, a divorce. The following year, Yemen’s parliament considered establishing a minimum age of marriage of 17, but efforts faltered when conservative lawmakers characterized the effort as anti-Islam. Yemen’s human rights minister has called for that legislation to be reconsidered, and Equality Now’s petition is designed to support those efforts.

Nujood’s story grabbed international headlines, but literally thousands of girls just like her face the prospect each year of being married off in Yemen—14.2 million girls around the world. Equality Now and its partners Yemeni Women Union (YWU) and Arab Human Rights Foundation (AHRF) are working hard to not only stop those marriages, but to help married girls obtain divorces and protection.

Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Equality Now’s Middle East/North Africa consultant, was kind enough to explain the situation in Yemen to us in a Q-and-A below. We urge you to read her responses, sign the Equality Now petition by Jan. 1, 2014, and urge your loved ones to do the same.

In 2009, efforts to establish a legal minimum age of marriage in Yemen were defeated by conservatives in Parliament who insisted that such a law would go against Islam. What has changed since then? How can supporters of such legislation assure its passage this time around? What new arguments are being employed to convince lawmakers that setting a minimum marriage age is the right thing to do?

Yemen is currently undergoing a ‘national dialogue’ process, which seeks to debate the future of the state and draft a new constitution. We are hopeful that previous grievances can be put aside and a productive collaboration between parties to ensure that all girls at risk of child marriage are properly protected will develop. This is a fundamental and non-negotiable human rights issue, as opposed to a political concern.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement of 2011 states that parliamentarians should agree on suggested laws, so cross-party support is important. Arguments in favour of ensuring a minimum age of marriage have not changed, but the political situation has changed since the National Dialogue Conference.

Yemeni Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour has asked that the legislation considered in 2009 be reintroduced for consideration. What legal steps need to be taken to have that legislation reintroduced? Who within the government do supporters need to contact to make that happen?

According to the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement of 2011, the parliament should vote collectively on suggested drafts laws. This could be a challenge, but consensus is possible. Alternatively, a request could be made from the fantastic Human Rights Minister, Hooria Mashhour, or the speaker of the house, Yahia Al-Ra’i, to introduce and vote on the suggested draft law. If the parliament doesn’t agree, the president can intervene and issue a decree.  We are hopeful that in such a scenario, the president would recommend that a minimum age of marriage is introduced.

Your petition has more than 1,800 signatures on it now. How many ideally would you like to send to Yemen? How many signatures would it take to get parliament to address this issue? Is there an official process by which it can be presented so it becomes part of the public, official record?

We are very grateful to everyone who has signed so far. There is no ideal number as such – every signature matters and helps to put pressure on the relevant authorities to re-introduce the minimum age of marriage bill. We are working both publically and behind the scenes to advocate for change.

When is the petition slated to be sent to Yemen? Is there a deadline by which supporters should sign it?

We are constantly working on this issue with our local partners in Yemen – we urge supporters to sign as soon as they possibly can as there may be a limited opportunity to get the proposed legislation introduced as part of the National Dialogue process, which is due to end in the near future. We do not know what the exact date might be, but the process is likely to end early 2014.

--- Stephanie Sinclair/VII
— Stephanie Sinclair/VII

Other than setting a minimum age for marriage, what else would the law need to address for it to be effective in Yemen?

Without a minimum age of marriage, there is no legal protection for girls at risk of child marriage, so this is the most important element. However, we also urge the Yemen government to ensure that child brides who have ended their marriages are supported and safeguarded.

In the meantime, absent a marriage law, how have Equality Now and Yemen Women’s Union been able to assist young girls who have been married against their will or are in danger of being married? Besides signing the petition, what can regular members of the public do to assist EN and YWU in their efforts?

Without a minimum age of marriage, any efforts made to protect girls at risk are just piecemeal and unsystematic. There is a significant amount of support for safeguarding girls at risk, but ensuring legal protection and justice for these girls is the cornerstone of their empowerment. Without a law, girls continue to be put in harm’s way. As well as signing the petition, we encourage members of the public to spread the word about this campaign by sharing the Action and increasing awareness of this issue as much as they can through their own networks.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about this issue?

The Yemeni government is legally bound to introduce and approve this bill. The failure of the Yemeni government to ban child marriage is a violation of their international obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and also the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), both of which contain provisions against child marriage or practices prejudicial to the health of children. In 2012, the UN Human Rights Committee in its examination of Yemen’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), called on Yemen to “set a minimum age for marriage that complies with international standards.”

Along with our partners, Yemeni Women Union (YWU) and Arab Human Rights Foundation (AHRF), we enthusiastically support Minister Mashhour in her efforts to ensure that the government of Yemen lives up to its obligations under international law. We also urge the general public to help put pressure on the government of Yemen to make the rights of women and girls a priority, to pass and enforce a law prohibiting child marriage, and to ensure the safety and human rights of child brides who have ended their marriages.

Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Middle East/North Africa Consultant, Equality Now

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