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Ending Child, Early and Forced Marriage in Yemen



This story is part of the series We are human rights changemakers to celebrate Equitas’ 50th anniversary (#Equitas50). All through 2017, we invite you to discover stories of 50 inspiring human rights changemakers. These are but a few of the hundreds who have changed lives around the world through human rights education with Equitas’ support.

Safa Abdulkarem Rawiah easily fits the description of “pioneer” and “groundbreaker.” And “leader.” Why? Because, in a patriarchal country where women face many challenges and are often forced into marrying too early, she is hard at work empowering … women!

Safa is the Executive Manager for the Youth Leadership Development Foundation (YLDF) in Yemen. She oversees projects and teams working on youth empowerment and engagement, human rights, and, especially, female empowerment. “In our YLDF programs, we’ve tried to work on gender-based violence issues and to focus on early marriage, and we do that by developing educational and economic approaches to helping victims of gender-based violence.” Working for women’s rights is a mission that would daunt (or even defeat) many other leaders in Yemen.

But 35-year-old Safa comes to it from very early exposure to a different way of thinking about women. She describes being raised in Sana’a, capital of Yemen, by parents —her mother in particular— who were deeply aware of the consequences of some of the country’s traditional practices and who worked at raising a daughter who would define her own path through life, rather than being held strictly to tradition.

Safa is in the midst of a Master’s degree program at the Gender & Development Research Center, Sana’a University. She was a freelance consultant in development projects in Yemen, often evaluating programs created to empower Yemeni women. For three years, she was with the World Bank as a Program Assistant in financial management and rural development.

In short, Safa Rawiah is not a newcomer to the fight for human rights.

“As a woman, I was very drawn to the challenges women face within their social traditions,” Safa says. “And one of those was early marriage, in which many in my own family were victims of, including my mother. So I heard about these issues very early in my life.”

Many development organizations are working today to stop this practice, but with few real results so far. While there is little information on the prevalence of child marriage in Yemen, UNICEF estimates that 32% of girls are married before the age of 18. “The problem,” says Safa, “is that early marriage, driven by patriarchal tradition and poverty, is justified as a solution for families, denying these young girls their rights to life and choice. And there is an absence of political will for changing such a system.”

But is there a way to change it?

Safa believes so, but says it is “very challenging” and it will take time. “At YLDF, we design activities that raise awareness and encourage girls’ education, and that describe some of the negative consequences of early marriage. We do this through brochures, short films, radio programs, and activities in schools. Equally, though, we encourage those girls already in early marriages to think about going back to school, or starting their own businesses in case they cannot go back to school.”

In 2014, YLDF received the Equitas’ Award for Human Rights Education to honour the exceptional work being done to engage and empower youth to bring positive change in their communities. Some of the YLDF staff and beneficiaries also took part in Equitas’ International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP) in Montreal, Canada.

“Through the YLDF members who participated in IHRTP, we have reviewed the Equitas training content and activities in order to make them fit into the local context,” she says. “We like to say that YLDF has ‘Yemenized’ the Canadian-imagined human rights training model! What this means is, we work on an individual level and build youth understanding of human rights. Then we go on to work at the organizational level by sharing our experience with other local NGOs and helping build their capacity to apply this ‘Yemenized’ version within their communities.”

Addressing the issue of children, early and forced marriage through the Equitas Mosharka project in the past two years, Safa says it is clear that the organization is succeeding. 

“In one of our projects, we managed to convince fathers to sign a commitment allowing their daughters to continue their educations; we don’t know how many will honour the commitment, but we still consider it a step forward.”

YLDF also brought in different actors around the table – including the ministry of education, local governing councils, youth groups, and larger organizations like UNICEF, Shaima, and Equitas – to help identify girls at risk for leaving school to encourage them to continue their education.

Safa is proud of the lessons she and her group have learned along the way, including the importance of sensitizing local communities to existing cultural conditions that treat girls differently than boys, and engaging young men especially in these activities.

“We will keep raising awareness, focusing on convincing decision makers to make policies that change the minimum age for marriage to 18. We will reduce the number of victims of early marriage.”

Story also available in Arabic >>

Executive Manager, Youth Leadership Development Foundation (YLDF)

Partner, Mosharka Project, 2013-2016
Recipient (YLDF) of Equitas’ Award for Human Rights Education, 2014

Story prepared by Francie King, HistoryKeep, www.historykeep.com
Director of Membership, Association of Personal Historians



Equitas’ International Human Rights Training Program is undertaken in part with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.

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