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Building on Yemen’s ancient legacy of female empowerment: How legal reform can help

Tazeen Hasan's picture
Also available in: العربية | Français
 Mohammed Al-EmadLegend has it that the Queen of Sheba came from Yemen, and although Ethiopia also stakes its claim to her, no one questions the fact that Yemen has had a number of indomitable queens in the past—something exceptional for its time.

Today, Yemen has become exceptional in other ways: It ranks last, or near last, in global indices of gender gaps and female empowerment; it is one of the few countries in the world where there is no minimum age for marriage; and it has legal restrictions that impede women’s mobility and decision-making, their participation in society and their economic opportunities.

A new World Bank report “The Status of Yemeni Women: From Aspiration to Opportunity” highlights both the continuing gender gaps and the progress made in terms of gender equality in Yemen.
There is the good news: Female literacy rates and life expectancy have been growing more than twice as fast in Yemen than in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. But the bad news is that there are glaring disparities rooted in social norms surrounding the role of men and women in the household and in the community: Only 40 percent of girls aged 6 to 13 are enrolled in school compared to 63 percent of boys.  A staggering 90 percent of working age women do not participate in the paid labor force, compared to 20 percent of men.

Although Yemen’s constitution guarantees equality between men and women, there are still discriminatory laws on the books. Married women in particular are affected by the family code.  Campaigning by the Women’s National Committee pushed through a 2010 reform in the Nationality Act that allows women married to non-Yemenis to pass their Yemeni nationality onto their children. But other legal restrictions continue: married women cannot choose where or how to live, travel, or work in the same way a man can. They are legally required to obey their husbands.

These restrictions are not rooted in culture or religion. A database shows that Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia, no longer have these specific restrictions.  

The injustice of child marriage

And there is the urgent issue of child marriage. The majority of Yemeni women are married by the age of 17—about 14 percent of girls before the age of 15, and 52 percent before the age of 18.  
Tragic stories of child brides have appeared in the international media: Nojood Ali, for example, was married at eight to a 32 year-old man, and subjected to violence. In 2008, at the age of ten, she had the courage to go to court for an annulment, her story prompting calls for reform. 

The 1992 Personal Status law set the minimum age of marriage for boys and girls at 15, falling short of Yemen’s commitments under international conventions—Yemen had ratified the Convention on the Right of the Child in 1991 which clearly defines a child as anyone below the age of 18. But even the marginal protection was abolished when this aspect of the law was scrapped in 1999.
 
More than 70 percent of respondents, male and female, to a 2011 Status of Women in the MENA region survey, supported restoring a minimum age of marriage for girls. The Women’s National Committee in Yemen has repeatedly lobbied for restoring the minimum age for marriage, and came close to seeing its enactment in 2009.

Countries with cultures similar to Yemen’s, such as Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt and Morocco, have  the minimum age of marriage for girls set at 18, proving this legislative gap can be addressed.

Restoring a minimum age for marriage

Establishing a legal minimum age for marriage is an essential starting point, but other related laws also need to be reformed, including divorce laws like the one that compelled an 11 year-old girl, forcibly married, to repay her dowry in order to leave her marriage.

Clearly, legal reform in itself is not enough. Implementing laws effectively depends on an improved birth, marriage, and national identification system, coupled with practical sanctions for breaching regulations, building awareness around laws, and providing low cost legal services. 

Reforming laws should be part of a basket of policies targeting poverty, such as conditional cash transfers that offer financial incentives for families to keep girls in school and help relieve the sort of dire economic conditions that oblige parents to give up their daughters for marriage.

Unlocking a national resource

Changing the legal framework will help unlock a national resource—women! Examples from Ethiopia and Turkey illustrate this. The reform of the family code in Ethiopia in 2000 that raised the minimum age of marriage and allowed women to work without their husband’s permission led to increases in their participation in the labor force. In Turkey in 1997, increasing compulsory education by three years led to a drop in child marriage and less early pregnancy.

An educated female population secures the health and potential of the next generation. Adolescent boys and girls alike see a future for themselves in respected professions, as well as having strong marriages and a good family life. Girls interviewed during a Bank-sponsored survey in Yemen’s southern port city of Aden, for example, aspired to becoming “a doctor in order to help others” or a “lawyer to defend the oppressed”, revealing that the spirit of the Queens of Yemen is still very much alive today.

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