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Yemen confronts plight of child brides

Widespread poverty and deep-rooted tradition keep young girls at risk for early marriage.

By Ginny HillContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 22, 2008

Starting over: In July, Arwa and Nujood celebrated their divorces in Sanaa.

Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom


Sanaa, Yemen

Two months ago, at the start of the school vacation, 12-year-old Reem was forced to marry her 30-year-old cousin.

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"While my hair was styled for the ceremony, I thought of ways to set fire to my wedding dress," she says. "When I protested, my dad gagged me and tied me up. After the wedding, I tried to kill myself twice."

Reem is the latest child bride to run from her husband's arms into the media spotlight. But she is not the youngest girl to escape from domestic violence and sexual abuse in recent months. This spring, 9-year-old Arwa and 10-year-old Nujood became the first "tiny voices" to alert the world to Yemen's widespread practice of child marriage.

The girls' stories have instigated a campaign against the practice, which is believed to be a consequence of widespread poverty as parents unable to provide for their children give, and in some cases sell, them into matrimony.

According to estimates based on surveys by university researchers and development agencies, half of all brides in Yemen are age 18 or younger. But there are no reliable national figures.

Child brides are prevalent in Yemen because the minimum marriage age of 15 was revoked a decade ago to allow parents to decide when their daughters should marry. The ruling abides by an interpretation of the Koran that claims there is no prescribed age for marriage.

Deep-rooted traditions also play a role. "Early marriages are universal in Yemen because of the cultural premium placed on shaping a young bride to meet the husband's needs," explains Naseem ur-Rehman, the chief of communications for the United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Yemen.

Parliament is considering a proposal to re-instate a legal minimum, setting the age at 18. But some lawmakers remain opposed on religious grounds. "Yemenis follow established customs more closely than the law," says Ahmed al-Gorashi, chairman of the child-protection charity Seyaj. "Tribal leaders and imams have more influence than the state. But it's important to amend our marriage laws to create a benchmark. We need a new place to start from."

Yemeni women are the most vulnerable

UNICEF warns that soaring inflation rates and high food prices threaten to turn increasing numbers of young girls into child brides, as families struggle to survive.

"There's an avalanche of factors working against the girl child. We should be on a war footing ... to save young girls from the inferno of child marriage," says Mr. Rehman.

He explains that the phenomenon of child marriage transcends the urban-rural divide and cuts across economic categories. "Even powerful families arrange alliance marriages by bartering their daughters into the power structures at an early age, but girls from the poorest families are most at risk," he says.