(WOMENSENEWS)--Yemen's version of the Arab Spring has eclipsed urgent social concerns both in debates within Yemen and with donor countries. One of these issues is the widespread forced marriage of girls; very young girls in some cases.
Now that President Ali Abdullah Saleh has agreed to cede power, there may be an opportunity to press for social reform as part of the transition process.
Yemen's incoming leaders should put the human rights of girls and women high on their agenda. A good place to start would be a legal ban on marriage before age 18.
On Dec. 10, the Yemeni journalist and activist Tawakkol Karman, who has long called for increasing the minimum age for marriage, was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. Her award speaks volumes to girls and women in Yemen about their importance in shaping their country's future.
The United States and other donors should provide assistance to bolster girls' education, health care and protection from violence. But donors also need to press Yemen to end the pernicious practice of child marriage, which often cuts off access to education and other services.
When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Yemen last January, just before political tensions escalated, she said, "We must help young women . . . to make the case in their own societies that child marriage is unjust and unwise."
She noted the story of one Yemeni girl, Nujood Ali, whose father forced her at age 9 to marry a man three times her age. Nujood's husband repeatedly beat and raped her, so she divorced him, at age 10. Her courage helped other girls speak out about the damage from child marriage.
Clinton said ending child marriage promotes education and health, adding that the United States should support both, including maternal health.
The damage from child marriage can last a lifetime, as I found interviewing women and girls for Human Rights Watch's Dec. 8 report on the subject.
Girls and women told me that their families forced them into marriage, offering no choice in the matter. Some said they had been subjected to marital rape and domestic violence. They had no control over whether and when to bear children. These were girls who enjoyed school and aspired to become doctors, lawyers and journalists. But marriage cut their dreams short.
Child marriage also exposes young girls to health risks associated with early pregnancy and childbirth.
Yemen has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the Middle East, estimated in 2010 at 210 deaths per 100,000 live births. Complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death for young women between 15 and 19, according to the World Health Organization. Girls and teens between the ages of 10 and 14 are five times as likely to die when they give birth as women between 20 and 24.
Many families expect girls to become pregnant soon after marriage. But these girls often do not have information about reproductive health or access to obstetric services.
Girls who marry early are more likely to have frequent and closely spaced pregnancies, placing their health at great risk, according to Save the Children.
With the crisis in Yemen, many donors are revisiting their funding strategies. It is likely that some programs may be cut or the amounts of funding may significantly decrease.
USAID, in its 2009-2012 strategic plan for Yemen, supported programs to raise awareness among religious leaders about the negative social and health consequences of child marriage. As the agency develops strategic plans for the post-Saleh Yemen, it should emphasize these priorities.
U.S.-supported programs for training teachers and teaching literacy should make a special effort to include married girls and women. The United States should also support additional programs that lift barriers to girls' education; safe transportation, for example, to and from school would provide a good incentive to parents to let their daughters finish their education.
The United States can also disseminate much-needed health information to girls and women in a variety of formats, including on television and radio for those who cannot read.
Traditional practices often resist change, but the political transition offers an opportunity to the country's new leaders to act on this vital social and human rights issue. It will take political will and moral courage. And international partners should keep girls like Nujood at the top of their priorities as they design their assistance for Yemen.
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Nadya Khalife is the Middle East women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, based in Beirut, Lebanon, and an author of the organization's new report, "How Come You Allow Little Girls to Get Married?": Child Marriage in Yemen."
For more information:
"How Come You Allow Little Girls to Get Married?" Child Marriage in Yemen, Human Rights Watch