Child Marriage in Yemen and Pakistan Sociology Essay Sample

Child marriage, as awful as it may seem to the larger part of the world, is a common practice in many Islamic countries. Statistical records show that 51 million of girls between the age of 15 and 19 are married. The real number of early marriages is higher, as girls married under 15 were not taken into account (Khalife, 2011). Moreover, according to the 2006 Demographic Health Survey, “one in seven girls worldwide would marry before her 15th birthday” (as cited in Khalife, 2011, p. 15). UNICEF states that 10 million girls marry before the age of 18 every year (Raj, McDougal, Silverman, & Rusch, 2014) The practice of child marriage is widely spread in the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where the economic state of population is low and religion rules everyday life. Child marriage is a rude violation of children’s and women’s rights. It commonly results in sexual abuse, cessation of education, confinement of girls to their husbands’ homes, and absolute dependence upon the husband. Moreover, reproductive health disorders and high rate of maternal deaths are the frequent consequences of early marriage.

This paper will consider this social problem of early marriage in two Asian countries, Yemen and Pakistan. These countries have much in common, namely low GNI per capita, low literacy level of the population, and a common religion, Islam. Both in Yemen and in Pakistan, Sharia, Islamic law, regulates everyday life issues of the citizens. However, the countries are geographically remote, with Yemen located in the south of the Arabian Peninsula, and Pakistan – in the South Asia. The comparison will discover the degree of pervasiveness of child marriage in both countries, the structural factors that account for this problem, the public opinion, and the steps taken in these countries to stop the abusive practice.

Early Marriage Problem

Both countries, Yemen and Pakistan, have high rates of child marriage, although the numbers are different. A survey conducted in 2006 jointly by UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and Yemeni government revealed astonishing data: “14 percent of girls in Yemen are married before reaching age 15, and 52 percent are married before 18” (as cited in Khalife, 2011). In some rural areas, child marriage is practiced even with 8-year-olg girls.

The situation with child marriage in Pakistan is not much better than in Yemen. A survey of female population in the city of Lahore discovered that “61% of women aged ≥15 years are married in the city” (Nasrullah et al., 2014). The 2006-2007 data cited by Raj et al. (2014) show that only 50% of all women that were ever married entered marriage at the age of 18 or older. 26% of women got married at 16-17 years, 18% – at 14-15, and 5% became wives under 14 years of age (Raj et al., 2014). In 19% of cases, the age gap between the spouses exceeded 10 years (Raj et al., 2014).

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Problems Evoked by Child Marriage

Early marriage robs girls of childhood and adolescence; they are burdened with family duties and childbearing, while they are children themselves. They are often locked at home to ensure that they are virgins before marriage (Ouis, 2009). After marriage, girls still have less freedom. They are confined to the home, which makes them lose contact with their friends and not have any outside activity without their husbands’ permission (Khalife, 2011; Nasrullah et al., 2014).

Being too young, girls are mentally not prepared to handling family life and building right relations with their husbands. The experience of marital duties can be very traumatic. Usually, girls enter marriage with little or no knowledge about family planning. They get pregnant soon after marriage and cannot control the time and the number of pregnancies.
Moreover, they are not ready physically either. The course of pregnancy is more problematic in adolescent than in adult women, and obstructed labor due to the small size of pelvises causes life-threatening situations during delivery (Khalife, 2011). Survey participants in Pakistan recognized that they had more health problems, such as menstrual cycle disturbances, pains, miscarriage and physical weakness, than their peers married after 20 did (Nasrullah et al., 2014).

Girls who give birth at the age of 10-14 have a five times higher maternal mortality level than young women of 20-24 (Khalife, 2011). In Yemen, for women of all ages, for every 100,000 live births, 210 death cases are registered (Khalife, 2011). Most deaths occur in rural areas where the age of marriage is lower and medical assistance is not available. Statistic records show that 64% of maternal deaths happen while delivering babies at home, which is practiced by the larger part of Yemeni women. In addition, early married women run a twice higher risk of miscarriage and four times higher risk of fetus and infant mortality (Khalife, 2011).

In child marriage, girls often become victims of domestic violence, verbal and sexual abuse, and marital rape. According to 2002 domestic violence survey in Yemen, “17.3 percent of respondents had experienced sexual violence, 54 percent suffered physical abuse, and 50 percent verbal threats” (Khalife, 2011). Low social status limits the possibilities to protest or to get protection.

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Factors Engendering the Problem

The analysis of the problem suggests several structural factors that account for the problem, namely poor economy, religious norms, patriarchy, and illiteracy. These factors are strikingly similar in both countries under discussion.

  • Patriarchy

In patriarchal societies, women are not considered equal to men; they are limited in rights and usually depend upon their parent, husband, or guardian. In some cases, children and women are viewed and treated as property. In Pakistan, such practices as “Watta Satta (bartering bride for bride), Pait Likkhi (marrying children before they are born or are still very young), Addo Baddo (marriage among tribes), and Swara / Khoon-Baha / Vani / Sakh (girls given in marriage as a form of dispute resolution)” are considered traditionally acceptable (Nasrullah et al., 2014). Thus, child marriage is often practiced for social purposes: research estimates approximately equal occurrence of child marriage across all society layers (Raj et al., 2014).
Patriarchal societies often have honor ideology, as in the case of Pakistan and Yemen. In patriarchal families, the bride’s virginity is a merit; losing it means damaging the family honor. The honor of the family dictates the parents’ duty to confine a young girl to home in order to protect her from the evil influence of the world and to marry the girl out as soon as she reaches puberty. Therefore, early marriage is one of the ways to keep daughters from pre-marital sex and to secure the good name of the family (Khalife, 2011; Ouis, 2009). If girls happen to lose virginity before marriage or commits adultery, some families refer to honor murder. The cases of honor murders are seldom reported to police and usually concealed within a family (Ouis, 2009).
Women’s education is believed to be unnecessary because the role of women is to serve her husband. In Yemen, parents often take young girls from school in order to prepare them for the future marriage, and few of them continue education after marriage.

  • Economic factor

In the counties with low income, where social and religious norms allow, marriage is also a form of trade. For low-income families, daughters are burden, as they cannot contribute to the family financially. Marriage is a way to reduce the burden as early as possible. On the other hand, daughters are an asset, because a would-be husband should give dowry in the form of money or presents. Dowry is the bride’s possession; however, the law leaves the time of payment to the guardian’s discretion (Khalife, 2011). Usually, the younger the girl is and the older the bridegroom, the bigger the dowry is. Sometimes, marrying a daughter out to a richer man seems a way to provide for the future of the family and the girls. Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East with high unemployment rate. 80% of Yemeni population live in rural areas and can hardly earn their living by working heavily on farms (Khalife, 2011). Child marriage both in Yemen and Pakistan often serves to relieve the financial state of poor families.

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  • Religion

In Islam, a man may marry up to four women on condition that he is able to provide for them equally, and this right is widely practiced in Yemen. Additionally, Quran regards women as the men’s lower, and grants them few rights. A man, for example, can divorce his wife by pronouncing his repudiation three times (Khalife, 2011). For a woman, there are only a few conditions for divorce, connected with financial support or abandonment. If there are other reasons, a woman can apply for Khul’a or no-fault divorce, but, as it is connected with repayment of dowry and claims for maintenance, not many women can afford them (Khalife, 2011). The case of Reem, where an 11-year-old Yemeni girl married a 21-year-older man, shows that for a child, it is almost impossible to fight out divorce even if marital abuse and rape are proven (Khalife, 2011).

Opponents of marriage age in Yemen ground their arguments on Quran and Sharia. Yemeni Sheikh Al-Zindani, one of the founders of Islah, a fundamentalist political party in opposition to the government, and the leader of Faith Institute, criticized the law banning child marriage as “un-Islamic and a threat to the culture and society of Yemen” (Khalife, 2011).
In Pakistan, even the women who themselves suffered from early marriage believe that the parents’ duty stipulated by Quran is to marry their daughters out as soon as possible after they reach puberty. Of the 19 participants of the survey, only four women expressed the wish not to marry their daughters out before they can receive education and reach a better social status (Nasrullah et al., 2014).

  • Illiteracy

Yemen has one of the lowest literacy rates. UNESCO survey conducted in 2007 revealed that “the adult literacy rate for Yemenis aged 15 and over was 59 percent: 77 percent for males and 40 percent for females” (Khalife, 2011). Literacy rate among young people (between 15 and 24) is 80%; however, the gap between males and females is still significant (93% for males and 67% for females). Illiterate parents often do not value education for girls, as there are few possibilities for women’s employment, and women are confined to their families. Sometimes, parents take girls from school to look after the youngsters and to help with household, or to prepare them for marriage. Besides, in many rural areas female teachers for girls are simply unavailable. Most girls in Yemen do not finish secondary education (Khalife, 2011). In Pakistan, only 25% of all girls finish primary education compared with almost a half of all boys (Nasrullah et al., 2014).

Illiteracy and lack of skills bring girls in absolute dependence from their husbands. They are unable to provide for their lives in case of divorce, which makes them endure all hardships that come with marriage.

Efforts to Reduce or Eliminate the Problem of Child Marriage

The majority of countries in Asia and North Africa confess Islam. In some of them courts and legislation are secular, but most abide by Sharia as the main law. In the majority of Muslim countries, legislation sets the minimum age for marriage; in Egypt, for instance, it is 18 for both boys and girls, as well as in Iraq (Khalife, 2011). In Yemen, the minimum marriage age does not exist currently. In Pakistan, although established by legislative documents, the law is not observed in practice, with marriage being interpreted as a family matter.

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Yemen. In the case of Yemen, it is different. Despite the fact that Yemen is a signatory to many international documents that clearly state the rights of children and women, such as the Convention on the Rights of Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and others, Yemeni legislation fails to grant them legal protection. First, the legislation lacks a clear and unambiguous definition of a child, so it is difficult to protect children by international law. Second, Sharia defines the women as “sisters of a men” (as cited in Khalife, 2011), with duties and rights assigned by Sharia and law, which shrink those rights and fail to protect them.

Since the war of 1994, Sharia has become the official law, refuting many provisions of earlier Constitution as non-Islamic. Before 1999, the minimum marriage age was set at 15; now, there is none. In 2009, parliamentary majority voted for establishing a minimum marriage age at 17. However, a smaller but more powerful opposition stifled the draft by sending it to the Sharia Legislative Committee for revision. A religious fatwa proclaimed by some Muslim clerics in March 2010 declared establishing marriage age un-Islamic and “contrary to Sharia” (Khalife, 2011). Besides, parliamentarians could not find agreement about the second part of the draft imposing penalties and imprisonment on husbands who marry girls before puberty and guardians who let it happen (Khalife, 2011). The present political situation in Yemen paralyzed all legislative activity in the country, including this law.

In 1999, a provision was added to Personal Status Law to protect young girls against premature sex. The amendment forbids sexual intercourse until the wife reaches puberty. However, there are no appropriate enforcement mechanisms to ensure functioning of this regulation. In practice 11-12-year-old Yemeni girls are often married immediately after they reach puberty, and in some cases before (Khalife, 2011). Another provision of 1999 allowed child divorce in case of forcible child marriage, but repealed their right to maintenance (Khalife, 2011).

In Yemen, the activity of non-governmental organizations against the practice of child marriage is remarkable. Yemeni NGOs collaborate with international organizations for human, women’s and children’s rights, such as the Human Rights Watch. They conduct surveys and register cases of violation of human rights in Yemen. Due to the NGOs, child marriage became an issue of public concern in Yemen rising acute political discussion and popular opinion against the tradition that mutilates the lives of young girls. In 2011, a Yemeni woman journalist and activist for women’s rights Tawakkol Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with two activists from Liberia (Khalife, 2011). Karman is an active proponent of setting a minimum marriage age. Karman’s activities and awarding attracted attention of the world community to the violation of women’s rights and the problem of child marriage in particular.

Pakistan. There are visible efforts to eliminate child marriage in the Pakistani law. The Child Marriage Age restraint of 1929 clearly bans marriage of girls under 16 and boys under 18 (Nasrullah et al., 2014). The child Marriages Restraint Bill of 2009 and the Charter of Child Rights Bill of the same year attempted to raise the minimum marriage age for girls to 18 (Nasrullah et al., 2014). However, in a tribal society like Pakistan, traditional practices prevail even if contrary to the legislation. The traditions of Addo Baddo, Pait Likkhi, Watta Satta, and Swara / Khoon-Baha / Vani / Sakh are applied widely in rural areas and in big city slums (Nasrullah et al., 2014). For the moment, the work of non-governmental organizations fails to embrace all population layers. NGO activists participate in surveys and opinion polls, try to raise awareness of the negative outcomes of child marriage among the population, and attempt to promote sound legislation.

Prospects of Elimination of Child Marriage in Yemen and Pakistan

In tribal societies, like Yemen and Pakistan, that are ruled by Sharia and live according to honor principles, the improvement of the situation will take a long time. Child marriage is deeply rooted in people’s consciousness and practice; it finds justification with some Islamic clerics and tribal elders who condemn the attempts to protect girls form early marriage as contradictory to Islam and undermining moral principles of the society and their authority. However, it is obvious that under condition of limited literacy of the population, the initiative should be taken by the governments of both countries.

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What is particularly striking, even among women there is no unanimous opinion about the harm inflicted by child marriage to girls’ health and social status. Pakistani random survey shows that the large majority of the respondents (13 women of 19) who were married between 11 and 17 years are satisfied with their roles, 10 of them find the practice of child marriage appropriate for religious and moral reasons, and 13 would marry out their daughters as children, too (Nasrullah et al., 2014). Most of those women link their reproductive health problems to medical conditions and not to the early sexual life and childbearing. Only 6 of the 19 respondents resolutely condemned the practice of child marriage, and only 4 of them were in favor of education for girls as means to be self-supporting (Nasrullah et al., 2014). At the same time, the data presented by Nadia Khalife (2011) show greater dissatisfaction of Yemeni women with the state of things, and the society shows greater concern. However, parallels with Pakistan and public protests with participation of women against the law banning child marriage in Yemen (Khalife, 2011) suggest the existence of women who are not only content with the practice but also would defend it for religious reasons and honor principles.

While people live on the verge of extreme poverty, as it is in Yemen, and have scarce education, employment and medical assistance opportunities, the balance is not likely to break. Political turmoil stifles all legislative activity, and the influence of fundamentalist Islamic confessions and parties impedes the struggle for human rights. Unless the situation stabilizes within the following years, it is difficult to predict significant improvement. Even if new political leaders come to power and pass new laws to set the minimum marriage age and protect children’s and women’s rights, they will have to create enforcement mechanisms that were unavailable in the old system.

The situation in Pakistan does not show great signs of improvement as well, with fundamentalist parties being at power. Besides, Pakistani women show lower awareness of the harm inflicted by child marriage and lower readiness to change and to fight for changes than Yemeni women do. Unless the government implements strict responsibility for violation of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, traditional practices of child marriage will continue.

For both countries, the improvement depends to a great extent upon spreading awareness among the population about the consequences of child marriage, “promoting civil, sexual and reproductive health rights for women, and provision of economic opportunities for girls and their families such as microfinance schemes” (Nasrullah et al., 2014). It is a vast field for NGOs and governmental organizations. International human rights organizations should also play their parts to raise worldwide awareness of the problem and advise the governments.

The results of research of child marriage in Pakistan and Yemen show how common this problem is across the Asian continent. It also reveals that the constituent factors that account for the problem are the same independent of the country. These factors are religious obscurantism, patriarchal culture with honor ideology and historically rooted tradition, poor economic situation, lack of appropriate legislative and enforcement base, and illiteracy of the population. Each factor taken separately does not account for the problem of child marriage in the modern world, but their combination makes it extremely difficult to eliminate or at least alleviate the situation. The problem of child marriage in Yemen, Pakistan and other countries where it exists can be solved only through joint efforts of the local governments, local and international NGOs, and wide involvement of the local and world communities.