December 8, 2011


Fourteen-year-old Reem, from Sanaa, was 11 years old when her father married her to her cousin, a man almost 21 years her senior. One day, Reem’s father dressed her in a niqab (the Islamic veil that covers the face, exposing only the eyes), and took her by car to Radda, 150 kilometers southeast of Sanaa, to meet her soon-to-be husband. Against Reem’s will, a quick religious marriage ensued. Three days after she was married, her husband raped her. Reem attempted suicide by cutting her wrists with a razor. Her husband took her back to her father in Sanaa, and Reem then ran away to her mother (her parents are divorced). Reem’s mother escorted her to court in an attempt to get a divorce. The judge told her, “We don’t divorce little girls.” Reem replied, “But how come you allow little girls to get married?”

The political turmoil that has swept Yemen since early 2011 has overshadowed the plight of child brides such as Reem, as thousands of protesters took to the streets to demand the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule, and security forces responded with excessive and deadly force. But, while the focus of attention both inside and outside of Yemen is understandably the political future of the country, following President Saleh’s agreement in November to cede power before elections in February, child marriages and other discrimination against women and girls in Yemen continue unabated. And while the president’s resignation topped the list of most protestors’ demand, many young demonstrators especially are calling for a wide range of reforms, including measures to guarantee equality between women and men, and an end to child marriage.

The world took notice of these gender-related abuses when Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni woman activist, was in October named a co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Karman has spearheaded the anti-Saleh protests, and she also is a women’s rights activist and a vocal proponent of setting a minimum age for child marriage. Honoring Karman serves as a reminder that respect for women’s rights must not be ignored, including the rights of girls and women to be free from child and forced marriages and other forms of discrimination.

Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, is beset by high unemployment, widespread corruption and rampant human rights abuses. These abuses include child marriages, which are widespread. According to a nationally representative survey conducted by the Yemeni government and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2006, 14 percent of girls in Yemen are married before reaching age 15, and 52 percent are married before 18. A 2005 study by Sanaa University noted that, in some rural areas, girls as young as eight are married.

In 1999 Yemen’s parliament, citing religious grounds, abolished article 15 of Yemen’s Personal Status Law, which set the minimum age for marriage for boys and girls at 15. Yemen currently has no minimum age for marriage. Boys or girls can be married at any age, but in practice it is girls who are most often married young, often to much older men. The only protection offered under article 15 of the Personal Status Law is the prohibition on sexual intercourse until girls reach puberty. However, as in the case of Reem and others documented by Human Rights Watch illustrates this prohibition in fact does not guarantee protection. Sometimes girls may be forced into sex and subjected to marital rape before puberty.

The consequences of child marriage can be devastating and long lasting. Research on child marriage conducted by experts and organizations show that most girls who marry young are removed from school, cutting short the education and skills needed to provide for themselves and their families. Many become pregnant and have children soon after marriage. As girls with little education and power in their marriage, they have little chance of controlling how many children they have, or when they have them. This increases their risk of reproductive health problems. They are often confined to the home and not permitted to work outside. Their low social status makes them more vulnerable to abuse.

Reproductive health studies show that young women face greater risks in pregnancy than older women, including life-threatening obstructed labor due to adolescents’ smaller pelvises. Yemen has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the region. The shortage of prenatal and postnatal healthcare services, especially in Yemen’s rural areas, place girls’ and women’s lives at risk. An overwhelming majority of Yemeni women still deliver at home, often without the assistance of a skilled birth attendant who could handle childbirth emergencies.  Girls who marry young often have insufficient information on family planning or none at all. As young wives they find it difficult to assert themselves against older husbands to negotiate family planning.

Child marriage can also expose young girls and women to gender-based violence, including domestic abuse and sexual violence. A 2002 official survey on domestic violence in Yemen showed that 17.3 percent of respondents had experienced sexual violence, 54 percent suffered physical abuse, and 50 percent verbal threats. Domestic abuse—physical and emotional assault within the home—often isolates girls from their family and friends, preventing them from developing a support network to help them address the abuse. In 2005 the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a multi-country study on domestic violence in different regions of the world that showed that women between 15 and 19 years old who are married run a greater risk of being exposed to sexual violence,  including forced sex or marital rape.

A government study in collaboration with UNICEF on access to education for Yemeni girls shows that opportunities for education are restricted for many reasons. Many parents force girls to leave school when they reach puberty, or even earlier in rural areas where 80 percent of Yemen’s population lives, to help with household and farm chores and because of a lack of female teachers and separate school infrastructure for girls. But parents also take girls out of school early to prepare them for marriage. Once married, very few girls continue or complete their education. Girls without a formal education have fewer opportunities to work and financially provide for themselves and their families. 

Yemen is unlikely to meet a number of its Millennium Development Goals, a set of objectives agreed to by most United Nations (UN) member states to alleviate poverty and promote development by 2015. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) cites child marriage as a factor that contributes to Yemen’s lack of progress in meeting at least two goals: gender equality and reduced maternal mortality.

Yemen is party to a number of international treaties and conventions that explicitly prohibit child marriage and commit states parties to take measures to eliminate the practice. These include the Convention on the Rights of Child, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriage, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Many officials in Yemen’s parliament agree that a ban on child marriage is fundamental to safeguarding the rights of young girls. However, a small but powerful group of conservative parliamentarians oppose setting a minimum age for marriage, arguing that doing so would lead to “the spreading of immorality”, undermine “family values,” and would be contrary to Sharia, Islamic law. In 2009 a majority of parliamentarians voted to set the minimum age for marriage at 17. However, the conservative opposition used a parliamentary procedure to stall the draft law indefinitely. The political crisis in Yemen has paralyzed parliamentary action on this and many other legislative reforms. However, the next government should not use the crisis as an excuse to further delay protecting girls from the institutionalised abuse of legal child marriages.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Yemeni government to support women’s and girls’ rights to non-discrimination to end child marriage. The government should adopt and enforce a law setting a minimum age for marriage. It should work to change the cultural acceptance of child marriage, and promote education for girls and women. It should also take measures to prevent and redress domestic and sexual violence, and ensure that women and girls have access to adequate reproductive health services. International stakeholders should boost girls’ and women’s access to education, to reproductive health information and services, and to protection from domestic violence.