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Child Brides in Yemen Seek Legal Protection

  • Heather Murdock

A legislation in the country's parliament to set the minimum age for marriage at 17 has been languishing for a year

In many parts of Yemen, it is customary to marry girls as young as 10-years old. About a year ago, a bill was introduced to the country's parliament that would set the minimum age for marriage at 17. But it continues to languish in committees after some religious leaders voiced their opposition.

Sally al-Sahabi lives in a tiny stone hovel with no running water, and rusty hotplate for cooking. When she was 11, she wanted to get married.

Sally says she was seduced by the promise of new clothes and jewels for the first time in her life. But now, at 13-years-old, she thinks marrying her 25-year-old cousin Nabil al-Mushahi was a huge mistake.

Not long after the wedding Sally says she was beaten and raped. She begged her father to help her escape. But he hit her until she bled for disobeying her husband.

And Sally is not alone. Lawyer and children's rights advocate Shadda Nasser says as many as 40 percent of Yemeni girls are married before they are 13-years old. Nasser says the girls grow up uneducated, resenting their husbands, and later their children, for their own lost childhoods.

"They put her in the small jail in the home," Nasser sais. "She cannot go outside, she cannot play, she cannot continue her study. Only she stay in the home."

Having babies before puberty also puts the young brides lives in danger. Girls who give birth before age 18 are almost eight times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s, according to the U.N. children's agency.

Fawziya Youssef was 12-years old when she, and her baby, died in childbirth in September. She had been married to her 26-year-old husband for one year.

Nasser says many families also marry their daughters early to alleviate the pressure of poverty. Almost half of Yemen lives on less than two dollars a day. Sometimes girls are married so the family can collect the dowry traditionally due to the father of the bride, sometimes they are married simply so the parents can have one less mouth to feed.

In February, a bill that would set the minimum marriage age at 17 won a majority of votes in the Yemeni parliament. But before the president could sign it, the bill was blocked. Several prominent sheiks objected, saying it contradicted Islamic law.

Parliament member Sheik Mohammad al-Hamzi says the proposed law is yet another bow to Western culture that would limit choices for families. He says God, not law, decides when a girl is old enough to marry. Yemeni law, he says, should focus on helping to educate parents about what is safe for their children.

Sally's father, Mubkhoot Ahmed, supports the law, but also blames early marriage on illiteracy and ignorance. He says he did not know it could harm his daughter, and admits to beating her after he was accused of teaching her not to sleep with her husband.

But after Sally ran away, refused to eat for three days, and then threatened to kill herself, Ahmed realized how much Sally suffered as a young bride. He is now fighting for his daughter's divorce and says although he is illiterate, he should now have a college degree in the dangers of early marriage.