Interview on Child Marriage in Yemen with Former Pathfinder Program Coordinator

In Yemen, one out of seven girls is married by age 14 and nearly half by age 17. Early marriage is not only a human rights violation, but also a public health crisis the maternal mortality rate is five times higher for adolescent girls under age 15 than those over 20, and the health outcomes for their infants are similarly striking.

Through the USAID-funded Safe Age of Marriage program, the Pathfinder-managed Extending Service Delivery project is working with communities and local organizations to change this social norm. The Yemeni people are uniting in inspiring ways, acknowledging the crisis and taking action to influence their neighbors.

On April 26th, 2011 at 1:00PM EDT, Dalia Al-Eryani, the former program coordinator for Pathfinder's Safe Age of Marriage project answered questions live online on the Population Reference Bureau's website.

Full Transcript:*

Trilochan Pokharel: Many times child marriage appears as the cultural issue rather than the legal issue. I do not know much about the socio-cultural status of Yemen. But there are increasing debates in countries where sex is restricted to marital union, early marriage is a practice to legalize the sexual activity. Has your study addressed this issue? Have you looked child marriage as a defiant against restriction of sexual activity?
Dalia Al-Eryani: That is correct; in Yemen early marriage is the only way to legalize sexual activity. We did not directly address this issue as it is a cultural taboo to talk about sex in general. We instead repackaged it and spoke about the relationship between early marriage, early pregnancy and maternal and child health. We also focused on the meaning of "readiness" for marriage (or sexual activity) in the context of a girls physical development.

Boatemaa Sandra: What measures have been implemented since the inception of the program to bring about the sociocultural transformation of marriage in Yemen? What are some of the success stories and challenges of such programs?
Dalia Al-Eryani: The program involved training local community educators in issues in health, education and religion that are related to early marriage. Their presence on the field, armed with their knowledge brought about a transformation of the beliefs around child marriage. The biggest challenge they faced was getting the community to listen and recognize that early marriage is a problem. There are many success stories of cancelled engagements and girls going back to school but the biggest success was a community pact against child marriage.

Juliana Ezeoke: It is nice that there is a women group that has risen to challenge child marriage in Yemen in collaboration with foreign organisations. But my question is: Is early marriage in the constitution of Yemen? If it is not in the constitution that a child should be given in marriage early in life, is there anything governemnt is doing to protect the girl child from early marriage? Again, even if government does not have any legal framework to protect a child from early marriage, can't parents protect their children? Finally, to what extent has the campaign against early marriage by the USAID-funded project helped to stem the tide of the trend in Yemen?
Dalia Al-Eryani: Early marriage in Yemen is a cultural practice that is neither endorsed nor prohibited by any constitution or law. There is a minimum age of marriage law that is currently in discussion in the parliament but has been at a standstill due to largely religious opposition. Many of the parents in the communities where we worked were largely ignorant of the harm early marriage causes to their children, once they realized the consequences many did break off engagements. The USAID-funded project was not a nationwide project but it did successfully cause a shift in the age of marriage in the two regions where we worked. In one of the regions the community made a pact to eliminate child marriage.

Belay Endeshaw:

I think the problem is similar with that of ethiopian women. What are the root causes for such a great number of rampant early marriage in Yemen? Are poverty and religion (belief) determinant factors for this problem thank you!
Dalia Al-Eryani: Culture, poverty and religion are all root causes of early marriage. Culturally, people widely believe that by marrying off their daughters young they are protecting them from the temptation of premarital sex and sullying the family honor and ensuring that they have sons to care for them in their old age protects them. There is a famous Yemeni saying that translates to "Trust me, everyone is better off when you marry your daughter off at age 8" which indicates a lack of awareness of the negative consequences of early marriage. Financially, people believe that they can shift the financial burden of caring for their daughters by marrying them off, the younger they are the higher the dowry. Additionally, because dowries are high a type of marriage called trade marriage is rampant. It basically goes something like "you give me your sister and I'll give you mine and neither of us has to pay dowry". This is a problem because in many cases one of the girls (or both) can be very young. Early marriage does however also exist widely among the rich so culture trumps poverty. Finally, it is believed that because the prophet married Aisha at the age of 9, early marriage allowed, but required not by Islam.

Richard Cincotta: Before unification of Yemen in 1991, South Yemen was the only Arab state to function with a Marxist government. Did that government attempt to reduce child marriages and make other efforts to protect women? And, if so, did these policies leave differences in women's life courses between the north and south that persist today?
Dalia Al-Eryani: Prior to the unification both the South and the North of Yemen had minimum marriage age laws; 16 in the South and 15 in the North. The southern government however took additional measures to protect women by creating family laws not based on Sharia. It gave men and women equal rights within a marriage and also gave them both the right to divorce. The women in the capital (Aden) benefitted from the freedoms more than their counterparts in the rural areas where things remained as conservative as they were in the past. After the unification took place the North won over the South and law was set at 15 (1992) only to be abolished completely in 1999. The current law states that a marriage can take place at whatever age the guardian deems fit. Today, there is still discontent among older, educated southern women who felt the impact of this change but in general northern ideals have "wiped out" the past. Southern women have largely followed northern trends and become more conservative.

Dr. Anima Sharma: Child marriage is a big problem in several parts of the world, which needs immediate intervention by the Social Development people. Theoretically, this issue has been discussed umpteen of time in several National and International Conferences and several theories are built, questions are raised and answered but the outcome had been...????? My opinion is that instead of arresting the people and showing opposition in public by disgracing the parties carrying out child marriage, try to understand the issue and the problem in the historical perspective. Several practices which are/ were started due to certain socio-economic or political reasons have been enveloped under the cover of religion and have gradually become the orthodox traditions, with the reasons behind such practices have already melted away long time back in history. Hence, being an Anthropologist my observation is that we should try to work on the reasons first then identify the gate-keepers and influential people and then we should go for full swing Advocacy. Working on the crux of the matter is absolutely essential.
Dalia Al-Eryani: You are correct early marriage in Yemen is a tradition that has existed for a long time and has been integrated into religious beliefs and has, until recently, never been challenged. Differentiation between culture and religion was actually an essential component of our work. We did indeed identify gatekeepers in the areas where we worked and the community educators whom we trained approached these gatekeepers and were very successful in obtaining their support. If a law were passed it would not mean arresting/disgracing people because it would realistically be very difficult to enforce at the beginning. It would instead serve as an umbrella that protects individuals/organizations raising awareness, girls who want to delay marriage and families who are under tribal pressure too marry off their daughters.

Dr. Anima Sharma: I have just submitted my one observation and now adding some more. The child marriage again gives rise several health hazards and related social problems. Keeping those in mind too don't you think that along with advocacy we should also focus on empowering the social group carrying out this practice in terms of health, education, social security etc. will be like addressing the issue, holistically?
Dalia Al-Eryani: I think that it is almost an issue of a chicken and an egg, which comes first? The message we sent was if you delay marriage then you are empowered with better health, better education, better income and in the end social security. The reverse would be difficult to achieve because education for example is accessible to many girls but they are still pulled out of school to get married and in turn suffer health problems, can't support their families financially and eventually have to marry off their daughters early to get rid of the financial burden and the cycle repeats itself.

Issa Almasarweh:

They call it there early marriage for "Sutra". It is in fact child marriage or "Children Having Children". I can't see any positive change. Young girls below the age of 12 years are often given to the grooms' families. The grooms will then select when to initiate intercourse with their "live toys". Surprisingly, this practice is supported by many religious leaders in Yemen and the Saudi Arabia and I have watched them on many T.V. stations advocating it.
Dalia Al-Eryani: It is true that many religious leaders advocate for early marriage as a form of "Sutra" or to protect youth from premarital sex but there are also many others that advocate against it. We worked closely with a group of religious leaders who volunteered to speak to the communities we worked with and had tremendous affect on the outcome of the project. I am optimistic that things can change because I personally witnessed a dramatic change in the communities I worked with. Many engagements were broken off and in one of the regions the community made a pact to ensure that no one is married before they reach 18.

Issa Almasarweh: Amending marriage law was not an effective way to reduce girl child marriage when poverty combined with large number of children is forcing parents and children to resort to child marriage to shift the burden of family support to any coming groom. In Jordan, female legal age at marriage was raised to 18 years but an exemption was given to the judges to approve child marriage if they found it in best interest of children. In some years, this "best interest" resulted in about ten thousand girls married before the age of 18 years. Moreover, one fundamentalist NGO is also endorsing child marriage and funding collective marriage parties every year.
Dalia Al-Eryani: Amending the marriage law will definitely not be the ultimate solution to ending early marriage in Yemen but it will send a signal that early marriage is a negative practice and protect those that are against it.

Dharmendra Sharma: Child marriage adversely affects the women health, so there is prime need to make pro health laws like ban on child marriage, whether Yemen government has made such laws, rules and regulation, policies and programs?
Dalia Al-Eryani: The current law in Yemen states that a marriage can take place whenever the guardian deems fit. There is an effort to pass a law that would ban marriage before 17 but it has not passed yet. The national reproductive health strategy however does include developing a national communication plan that warns of the consequences of child marriage.

Pradeep Bohara: what is the main cause of child marriage in Yemen? in our country, child marriage is also in great problem and in terai part of Nepal, they get marriage before age of 5-15.
Dalia Al-Eryani: The underlying causes of early marriage in Yemen are vast but can be broken down into cultural and religious beliefs, poverty and lack of awareness of the dangers associated with early marriage. Please refer to my answer to Belay Endeshaw's question for more details.

Anu Gautam: Has your study discussed about the health impact of child marriage in Yemen? Can you please specify some important issues?
Dalia Al-Eryani: Our project was limited to raising awareness regarding the negative consequences of child marriage. We did not study the health impact of child marriage but instead used well-documented information to highlight the health risks and share them with the communities.

Brad Kerner: What are the key program interventions that you think would be most applicable in other parts of the world where early marriage is prevalent?
Dalia Al-Eryani: There were three main program interventions, all based on community participation, that may need modification but I think are largely applicable in many regions. The first is awareness sessions which were carried out by local community educators from a wide variety of backgrounds (educators, health workers, religious leaders, housewives, etc.) whom we trained. The second was health fairs which complimented the work the community educators were doing on the field and were essentially; a movie followed by a discussion, mini-awareness sessions, lecture and Q&A by a religious leader and RH services provided by a mobile clinic. These fairs were a huge community attraction and not only enforced the awareness session messages but also gave the community a sense of importance when they saw prominent religious leaders and other figures from the capital cared about their community. Finally, we had school based activities (play, magazine competition) which gave youth the opportunity to express themselves and learn about child marriage. The combination of three was the essence of project success and was the reason many stakeholders and gatekeepers came on board.

Cletus Tindana: Dear Dalia, may I know what cultural barriers affect girls' education in Yemen? What has been the economic impact of the educated female populace in the Country? Does the Yemeni government have laid down policies for educating the female child and how has it enforced it?
Dalia Al-Eryani: There are several cultural barriers to girls' education in Yemen but I think the most important is the perceived value of education. Families do not believe that there is a value to education other than financial gain. This creates two problems; on one hand there aren't many job opportunities for girls graduating high school in rural areas and on the other hand when a girl does find employment she eventually gets married and her income goes to her husbands family. In short families feel like girls' education is not a good return on investment. There is also the issue of lack of girls' schools and female teachers and the cultural taboo around mixed schools which forces many parents to pull their daughters out of school and results in high rates of child marriage. Government efforts to solve these issues have focused on creating a girls education department in the MOE which aims to mainstream gender in all MOE activities such as teacher recruitment, infrastructure development etc.

Rahat Bari Tooheen: If the project in Yemen is a success, can the model be emulated in other similar developing nations?
Dalia Al-Eryani: We carried out the project in four regions (in two stages) and found that we had to slightly amend it to accommodate various variables such as the terrain, awareness level in the community (pre-project), and also based on lessons learned. The base model however was successfully emulated in all regions and can be a valuable resource for projects in similar settings.

Tanja Kiziak: Child marriage is defined as marriage before the 18th birthday. In my view, a more fine-grained picture would be helpful to get an understanding of the situation in different countries. What do you reckon is the average age of young brides in Yemen are they teenagers or even younger? And are the girls expected to start childbearing immediately after the wedding? Thank you for your answers!
Dalia Al-Eryani: Thank you for your question! Nearly half of all Yemeni girls are married by age 17, 14 percent before they reach the age of 15 and they can be married as early as 8. Theoretically, the marriage should not me consummated until the girl reaches puberty but the reality is as soon as she is in her husband's home he is free to do as he pleases. As far as childbearing goes, yes girls are expected to prove their fertility as soon as they are wed and using FP methods to delay pregnancy is unacceptable before the first child is born.

Dr. Yasmin Siddiqua: Hi! Child marriage or marriage of girls below 18 years is also common in Bangladesh and despite extensive communication campaigns resulting high level of awareness on the rules and consequences of child marriage, the practice is well prevailing. Based on my research experience, one of the major reasons for child marriage is 'eve teasing' which parents see as a potential threat for unmarried girls, social insecurity, dowry (younger the girl less is the dowry amount), and parents fear that girls would marry on their own, which would result into social disgress for the family. So, parent's attitude and social issues including women empowerment and gender discrimination towards girls, come up as the foremost reason. Based on the experience, could you please share the reasons for child marriage and the ways to deal with them. We may need to think outside of the box based on your experience.
Dalia Al-Eryani: Hi Dr. Yasmin. There are many underlying causes of child marriage in Yemen, please see my answer to Belay Endeshaw for details. As far as eve teasing goes it doesn't play a major role in Yemen because it is not limited to unmarried girls (i.e. married women are also harassed). We found that community pressure played a larger role because families who wanted to delay marriages were harassed by the community and in many cases gave in. To combat this we recognized families in the area who stood against their communities and delayed marriage. The governor formally recognized them as role models in their communities. Dowry plays a role (in Yemen the female receives dowry) but it is not a defining factor as child marriage exists among both the rich and the poor. To combat its affect we worked with a local leader to form a community agreement that no girls dowry exceeds $2000 (down from $5000). Finally, we found that the term or idea of child marriage was nonexistent. Marriage was just marriage. Simply introducing the idea that delaying marriage was a good thing and getting the community talking about this was a huge breakthrough. We found that it helped to focus on the concept of "a safe age of marriage" rather than "early" or "child marriage."

Erick Howenstine: Are the religious justifications for this not insurmountable? Did Mohammed not marry a 9-year-old girl? If there are objective grounds to oppose this practice (and I think there are), how does one then answer the charge of cultural imperialism?
Dalia Al-Eryani: Although seemingly insurmountable, religious justifications to delaying marriage do exist. We found it beneficial to work with a prominent religious leader who explained it in the context of ones responsibility for their and their family's safety and well-being, i.e. because there is evidence that child marriage harms the health of a young girl we are religiously obligated to delay her marriage. Additionally, he pointed out that all marital practices the prophet followed are not applicable to the general population and even if he did marry a 9-year-old there is evidence that the marriage was never consummated and most early marriages that take place are. Finally, because we worked through a local NGO and many gatekeepers were on board, we were able to show the community that this is a project by the community for the community and project messages were for the benefit of the community regardless of where funding was coming from.

Celia Pett: In relation to child marriage, I am interested to know whether obstetric fistula (following obstructed labour) is a significant problem in Yemen?
Dalia Al-Eryani: The size of the Obstetric Fistula problem in Yemen is not well documented but through our work we found that the communities recognize it as a problem and educating them about the relationship between child marriage and Fistula was effective.

Margaret Greene: How can we help men understand that it is in their interest to marry women who are a bit older? How can we reach out to prospective grooms, especially young men and their families who are making decisions about their marriages?
Dalia Al-Eryani: This is an interesting question because there is a lot of focus on girls when it comes to child marriage even though it is males making the decisions. Because of the gender segregation in Yemen we had to select 20 male and 20 female community educators. We also involved male community leaders in an effort to legitimize project messages in the eyes of the male community. We found that the majority of the male CEs leaned towards discussing the social problems that occurred in their community as a result of this type union (as opposed to health problems for example). These messages, tailored to males, effectively changed the way they perceived child marriage. Many took these messages as a justification to cancel an engagement and requested that the community educators mediate the cancellation. We also focused on the benefits of marrying an older more educated woman a few of which were; healthier children, her ability to take better care of children (education and health), possibility of an income, and happier marriages.

Dr. Yasmin Siddiqua: Further to my earlier question, would you please share with us the intervention activities and particularly the messages that were disseminated to increase the awareness? What were the issues focused more to prevent child marriage? Were males or boys also included in the intervention? What was the impact of male involvement?
Dalia Al-Eryani: Please refer to my answer to Brad Kerner for an outline of the key interventions. Because this was the first time this topic had been discussed we focused our messages on showing the linkages between child marriage and mental and physical health, how early marriage leads to poor education results (and how education improves marriages) and that religion is not against delaying marriage. Because of the gender divide and because males are the primary decision makers when it comes to marriage, we made sure that half of our community educators were males. The male community educators successfully engaged key gatekeepers in the community which led to a community pact to ban child marriage. Please refer to my answer to Margaret Greene for more on male involvement.

Erick Howenstine: Thank you, I'd like to ask more about the religious issue, which I see as the main one. Do you believe that the general argument for safety and well being will adequately overcome the desire for child brides? Also, I would ask what evidence you might have that Mohammed did not consummate his marriage.
Dalia Al-Eryani: From my experience, the majority of fathers do want to protect their daughters but find the religious and cultural arguments for child marriage to be too compelling. Introducing a new argument, the wellbeing argument, provided those who already believed in delaying marriage with a way out and also made those who believe in child marriage question their beliefs. Because religion is such a big factor in the decision it is crucial to introduce and discuss new perspectives and the well being argument held well because it is directly mentioned in the Koran (child marriage is not). We worked with a religious leader and I don't have the background to give you much detail about the prophet not consummating the marriage but I recall that this belief is based on the fact that she never saw a women's doctor, had any reproductive health issues that indicate sexual activity and never got pregnant.

Charlotte Feldman-Jacobs: Is there any work in Yemen that focuses on getting messages out through various media? In other words, success stories of a woman who stayed in school, married later, became a success, had better health outcomes for herself and her family?
Dalia Al-Eryani: The Ministry of Health and various womens NGOs have produced video and radio clips that discuss the problems associated with child marriage and the benefits of delaying marriage. The majority of the population however resides in rural areas and many do not have access to TVs or radios. During a FGD we carried out with a group of schoolgirls we found that they had difficulty identifying female role models because there weren't many female success stories in their community. Those who did, identified a particular teacher that had chosen to get an education instead of getting married. We found that they believed that they had to choose between early marriage or education and spinsterhood and could not foresee a complete "success story."

Erick Howenstine: I see the practical arguments that it is in the man's best interest to marry someone closer to his age, but there are advantages for him as well to marrying someone very young. These include subserviance, longer period of fertility, and more independent years (his) prior to marriage. Without going into detail, in poverty and without education, it seems his practical arguments *for might outweigh the arguments *against. But if girls are educated the equation shifts in favor of waiting, for various reasons. Do you agree that girl-schooling is a key?
Dalia Al-Eryani: It is true that the arguments go both ways but because we are only trying to delay marriage until 18 the men did not feel threatened that this delay would eliminate subservience or decrease years of fertility. The community recognized that many girls trying to get pregnant before 18 face costly health issues and that in many incidences a health pregnancy did not occur until the girl was older. In addition, the men themselves are also marry young and hence independent years do not weigh into the decision. Yes, I believe that education is the key if only because in the short term it automatically delays marriage to at least 18. In the long term it will shift the equation and this is already happening in cases of girls who refuse marriage, get an education and a job and thus have more bargaining power of when and who to marry.

Erick Howenstine: Thank you for the response. Addressing cultural and religious inertia with arguments of well-being seems the best way to go, and women will get a stronger voice with education. But still I wonder (my subsequent question) whether one can not expect counter-productive but very real "practical" reasons for continuing child marriages especially if the well-being of the girls and women may be convenienty ignored.
Dalia Al-Eryani: Thank you for your questions! I agree that at least for the time being there will still be people who find reasons to continue child marriage. I think the key is to find the tipping point, to convince enough people to delay marriage. In the areas where we worked we found that once the majority of the community was on board, people were reluctant to marry their daughters off early for fear of community outrage. The scenario had drastically changed, before the project began it was the exact opposite, people could not delay marriages because of community outrage/ridicule. Keep in mind that the majority of the population resides in rural areas and community perception means everything to them. Finally, I believe that passing the minimum age law (even if it is not enforced), coupled with raising awareness, will make it difficult to ignore the well-being of women (and empower them to refuse marriage) especially under the scrutiny of the community.

>Learn more about what the Yemeni people are doing to address early marriage with Pathfinder's help.>

*Thanks to Population Reference Bureau for providing the full transcript and for conducting an such informative interview on this important topic.

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