How Change Happens: Campaigning on Early Marriage in Yemen
Here’s another interesting example of how to do advocacy where you might not expect it, in this case on women’s rights in Islamic contexts. If you are born a woman in Yemen you have a 50% chance of living in absolute poverty, a 70% chance of being illiterate and an 80% chance of never holding a paid job. You have a 1 in 19 chance of dying in childbirth. Half of all women marry before the age of 15, and three quarters before the age of 18. Early marriage is a significant contributor to high maternal and infant mortality.
Much of the resistance to ending early marriage stems from attitudes and beliefs. The beliefs underpinning early marriage include protecting chastity and family honour, lack of awareness of the negative impacts of teenage pregnancy, poverty and girls being viewed as an economic liability by some families.
What campaigners did: Since 2005, working with the Shima network and the Women’s National Committee – a loose alliance of 17 organisations and one government body – Oxfam in Yemen has run a campaign on ‘safe marriage’, to reduce the tolerance and practice of early marriage by increasing public understanding of its significance as a cause and consequence of poverty, particularly in relation to the health, education and economic status of women.
The partners compiled hard evidence on the impact of the early marriage on health and education using statistics, real life stories from people and communicating them through radio, school plays, posters, focus groups and discussions in the mosques. They found allies among religious leaders, teachers, marriage contractors and other influential members of the communities.
Results: Some cases of delayed marriage have been reported, but there was significant resistance to the idea of setting a minimum legal age for marriage in the Parliament . This resistance was based on the beliefs that banning early marriage was contrary to the teachings of Islam and tradition and an unjustifiable restriction on parent’s individual freedoms.
However in 2009, following lobbying from women’s organisations, a bill was introduced to the Parliament making 17 years the minimum age of marriage. The law was challenged and called back by the conservative opposition and it is currently on hold. But the taboo on speaking about this was finally broken.
When religious leaders objected, the campaign took its foot off the pedal to allow time for dialogue and identifying allies within the mosques. It met with Imams and officials at the Ministry of Religious Guidance through the Training Centre for Imams, a crucial step in allaying the fears of religious conservatives and proof that this was not a western-imposed issue. The campaign also commissioned a study to look at the views of the different Islamic sects/lines of thinking on the age of marriage, and the laws on minimum age of marriage in the Arab Countries.
· Language matters: focussing on health and education impacts and turning the campaign into one to promote a “safe age of marriage“ was a more acceptable concept that resonated with many men, women and children, religious and community leaders much better than the more normative language on women’s rights used earlier in the campaign..
· Be respectful of institutions, learn their language and understand their beliefs. Work within faiths, (quoting scripture, identifying allies etc) not against them
· Know when to go slow and when to push – it’s like catching a fish!