An article last week by the International Herald Tribune reported how Arwa Abdu Muhammad ran out of her husband’s house to a local hospital in Yemen, where she said her husband had beat and raped her for the last eight months. Arwa is nine years old.
Arwa sparked an international debate over child marriage. In Yemen and elsewhere, child marriages are a powerful illustration of misogyny and how it hurts developing economies.
The Global Gender Gap Index explains that women are a very important factor in the economy — when children are forced into young marriages, it leads to high rates of maternal and child mortality, an uneducated populace, and loss of economic opportunity.
The statistics speak for themselves. General health expert Dr. Abdullah Al-Kamil says a recent study found that the average age of marriage in Yemen is 12 or 13, and as Al-Kamil noted, “The problem here isn’t only early marriage, but also early pregnancy – and in most cases, early death.”
In a country where 30 percent of women between 15 and 19 have at least one child, early marriage and sky high maternal mortality rates are major causes of continuing poverty and underdevelopment. Suha Bashren, a policy officer from Oxfam, said she had no doubt that child brides were a significant reason Yemen’s ranking has recently fallen on the UN’s Human Development Index.
Yet in Yemen, poverty and conservative social values are driving forces in child marriage. Most parents in Yemen continue to believe that the earlier they marry their daughters, the better off their daughters will be. Early marriage is also encouraged by parents’ fears of girls being kidnapped and forcibly married, which is not uncommon.
Conservative Islamists supporting child marriage gained power after north and south Yemen reunited in 1990. In a government which recently modified laws to legally allow children under the age of 15 to marry, those against child marriage are a minority.
Because of Arwa’s bravery, child marriage is now being discussed. A few members of Parliament, such as Abdulbari Dughaish, are trying to change the laws in spite of religious opposition. The negative press within Yemen and internationally may be these children’s best hope for change — and their community's best hope for economic progress.