Yemen confronts plight of child brides
Widespread poverty and deep-rooted tradition keep young girls at risk for early marriage.
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.
"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Child brides are prevalent in Yemen because the minimum marriage age of 15 was revoked a decade ago to allow parents to decide when their daughters should marry.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.
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.
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.