Yemen confronts plight of child brides
Widespread poverty and deep-rooted tradition keep young girls at risk for early marriage.
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Arwa was sold to her husband for 30,000 Yemeni rials ($150) by relatives who needed the cash. Nujood's family also traded her to a violent man who would chase her through the house before raping her.Skip to next paragraph
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Both girls reached beyond their family circle in search of help. Arwa went to a local hospital, while Nujood caught a taxi to a court house where she told her tale to a sympathetic judge. Each was swiftly granted a divorce.
The girls' experiences reveal a fragile existence at the margins of society in the poorest country in the Arab world.
More than a third of the population – 7 million people – are undernourished, according to the United Nation's World Food Program. Yemen is heavily dependent on food imports, making its citizens especially vulnerable to global price shocks.
"The cards are stacked against the girl child, and those shuffling the cards don't even understand the risks to their sisters and daughters," adds Rehman.
Pregnant women in Yemen are at high risk of dying during childbirth. Early marriage contributes to this problem, as teenage mothers are five times more likely to die from complications during labor than women giving birth in their twenties, says Rehman.
No support after divorce
Reem, Arwa, and Nujood have broken free from unwanted marriages, but their lives have become a spectacle and they are still struggling to adjust. Front-page coverage has provoked a much-needed national debate about a taboo practice. But it has also left the girls exposed in a culture where women are veiled and marriage is treated as a private matter.
Ms. Saqqaf wants other child brides to come forward, but concedes there is no support network in place for them. "We have to establish a trust to look after the girls' interests over the next few years. We need to find a model that will work for all victims of early marriage."
Meanwhile, Reem is still waiting for a judge to grant her divorce. The judge claims that Reem, as a minor, is unable to decide what is best for herself and must wait until she is 15 to see if she still wants a divorce. Reem's lawyer is currently appealing the verdict.
For now, Reem is at her mother's apartment. Her parents are separated; her mother did not have prior knowledge of the arranged marriage. Reem's father has threatened to kidnap her. "My dad said he'll kill me for defying him, but I want to go back to school. I'm too young for the responsibility of marriage," she says. •
• Research for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.