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Yemen confronts plight of child brides

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

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

Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom

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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Child brides are prevalent in Yemen because the minimum marriage age of 15 was revoked a decade ago to allow parents to decide when their daughters should marry.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.

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