Across the Arab world, child marriage remains a significant problem that adversely affects far too many young girls. In Yemen, one of the worst cases, over 50 percent of the girls are married before they become adults. Voices across the Arab world are increasingly critical of this phenomenon.

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Child marriages, particularly between underage girls and older men, remain to be a significant problem throughout the Arab world.   In Iraq, 11 percent of girls marry under the age of 18, while in Yemen; statistics show that over 50 percent of the girls get married as children.  One of the most famous Yemenite child brides in Nujood Ali, a young girl who was married off as a child for financial reasons and who was raped and abused constantly by her husband, yet managed to make history by being the first child bride in Yemen to successfully file for a divorce at age 10. 

 In her autobiography, “I am Nujood, age 10 and divorced,” Husnia al-Kadri, the director of women’s affairs at the University of Sana’a, stated, “Nujood’s divorce kicked down a closed door.”   According to Delphine Minoui, who helped Nujood write her autobiography, “In this country of the Arabian peninsula, where the marriage of little girls draws on traditions that until now seemed unshakable, her unbelievable act of bravery has encouraged other small voices to speak out against their husbands.”   

 In part because of Nujood’s bravery, the Middle East Media Research Institute has recently reported that there has been renewed debate within the Arabic language media discussing how child marriages adversely affect their society.  In Saudi Arabia, where child marriages are also common, the Saudi media uncovered that one man sought to marry off his 10-year-old daughter.  The girl came to school faint and was taken to the local hospital, while the matter was reported to the Saudi police.  Following this incident, the Saudi press criticized child marriages and called for legislation setting a minimum age for marriage.  

 In an article in the Saudi government daily Al-Yawm, MEMRI reported that columnist Amal Al-Ta’imi argued: “The fact that a phenomenon like underage marriage exists in the public arena of the Arab world shows that we are not progressing but sliding backwards, to the pits of mental ignorance. [Underage] girls and the offspring [of such marriages] have paid the price of this mental filth that impels people to marry off girls who have not attained puberty or have only just attained it. This is mental backsliding that has very severe results.”

 Columnist Maha ‘Akeel, writing in the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote: “Studies have demonstrated that marriage at a young age endangers the girl’s health and life. Statistics show that the younger the girl is, the greater the probability that she will die due to problems in the course of pregnancy and childbirth… For marriage exhausts the girl’s body, especially if she is [physically] immature and ignorant [about married life]… It is the girl’s right that they ask her permission before marrying her off, but it is illogical to consider a minor’s opinion with regards to marriage when she does not fully comprehend the meaning of the word.  Therefore, such marriages are null and void. Likewise, the girl’s fitness [for marriage] can only be examined upon the conclusion of her physical development, which differs from one girl to another.”

 “Likewise, the state must pass a law that will set a [minimum] age for marriage, in the framework of the shari’a, to protect the girl against deranged people, and there is ample religious and scientific evidence to rely upon,” ‘Akeel concluded.  “The state must honor the International Convention on the Rights of The Child that it endorsed in 1989, as well as the [Covenant on] the Rights of the Child in Islam, published by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (currently the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) in 2004, which is intended to protect children from acts and customs that harm them medically, socially or culturally, and from exploitation in all its forms, particularly sexual exploitation.  In 2008, the member states in the Organization of the Islamic Conference formulated a work plan for assuming responsibility towards women, which stipulated that ‘it is mandatory to prohibit premature marriage or coerced marriage by all possible means.’”  

 The Saudi media is not the only Arab media outlet to discuss this issue.  Muna Al Fuzai, writing in the Kuwait Times, wrote, “I always thought that child marriage was something that took place only in poor and ignorant communities. But an Egyptian TV serial brought the topic out into the open. It shed light on the problem by showing how an old rich man would marry young girls by taking advantage of the family’s poverty and ignorance. The series tells a gripping story which cannot be ignored. This series has in fact, made child marriage the main topic of discussion on social media websites and many see it as a form of rape which is not recognized by the legislature. While the victim’s voice goes unheard, the rapists get away scot-free!”  

Furthermore, the Jordan Times reported that child marriages constitute 12.6 percent of marriages within the Hashemite Kingdom and stressed that the country’s economic difficulties are aggravating the problem.   While Jordan changed the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18, the reality within Jordan is still quite dire: “We are talking about one out of ten Jordanian girls married below the age of 18. This means that it is a phenomenon we must combat, given all the consequences early marriages have on girls,” Munir Idiabes, executive director of the Amman-based Sisterhood Is Global Institute (SIGI/J) told The Jordan Times in a telephone interview. 

 “Often, girls have to drop out of school to get married. This interruption in education is a violation of their rights, which affects their chances for decent employment in the future. Let alone all the health risks resulting from early pregnancies and labor,” women’s rights activist Inaam Asha stated.  The Jordan Times furthermore stressed that a UNFPA report titled “Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage” revealed that the majority of child brides in Jordan come from poor families. According to the report, one in three girls in developing countries (except for China) are likely to be married before the age of 18, and one out of nine will be married before their 15th birthday.  In the next decade 14.2 million under-age girls will be married every year, the report predicted.