Celebrate Solutions: Community educators change perceptions of child marriage in Yemen

By: Rati Bishnoi, Special Projects Intern at Women Deliver

yemengirls.jpgNearly one-half or 48 percent of girls in Yemen are married by the age of 18 years old, with 14 percent married by the time they turn 15 years old. In addition, it is common for girls in remote areas to be betrothed as young as 9 years old and for 57 percent of girls living in poverty to be married age 18.

Institutionalized child marriage “deprives young girls of a childhood, enhances their risk of domestic abuse, and entraps them in a cycle of abuse,” according to USAID. The health consequences are severe and long lasting for girls and their babies. Child marriage increases the prevalence of depression, sexually transmitted infection, cervical cancer, obstetric fistulas, and maternal mortality among girls as well as the likelihood of premature birth and infant death.

To prevent child marriage and the negative impact it has on communities, USAID in 2009 partnered with the Yemeni Women’s Union to launch the Safe Age of Marriage program. The pilot program has educated more than 40 community educators and leaders to help alter social norms about child marriage and to promote girls’ education. Not only does education improve girls’ abilities and confidence, keeping girls in school longer is one of the most effective ways for avoiding child marriage.

Specifically, community leaders come from and work in the isolated and mountainous Al Sawd and Al Soodah districts in Amran province. Amran has some of the worst child marriage and early birth levels in the country, with 71 percent of mothers and 21 percent of fathers married by age 18.

The community educators lead health affairs, movie screenings, plays, quiz shows, health and religious lectures, and mobile health visits. During these awareness-raising sessions, the educators discuss the causes of child marriages in Yemen, including socio-cultural reasons, such as tribal customs, and economic factors, such as minimizing dowries.

These sessions especially focuses on the concept of “model families,” which both delay their daughters’ marriages and also educate them through the twelfth grade. The concept has gained such popularity that the governor of Amran recognized twelve families, who are protecting their daughters as well as increasing their opportunities.

Community educators have reached 29,000 people and been critical in preventing 53 girl-child and 26 boy-child marriage in the first year of the program. A household survey of 400 families in the program area also suggests that the peak age marriage for girls has increased from 14 years old to 18 years old in the two regions.

As part of the effort, the Ministry of Endowment and Guidance in Amran has called on all religious leaders to speak about the negative impact of child marriages during sermons. In addition the entire Al Soodah community has taken an oath against participating in child marriages, defined as involving girls and boys younger than 18 years old. Yemen currently has no law declaring a minimum age of marriage.

Community educators and traditional leaders continue to be instrumental in spreading information and acting as role models about child marriage. According to USAID Senior Gender Adviser Leah Freij, one community educator is changing perceptions not only through her words but her actions of being a married woman, who has completed college with her husband and family’s support.

Freij adds, “Girls used to think you had to choose between an education and marriage. Now they see they can have both.”

Photo via kate_griffin13

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