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Yemen confronts plight of child brides

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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.

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