Samira was married to a Yemeni cousin at age 15 and had her first child the following year. “It’s normal to marry at age 12 in my village,” she said, “and you can't choose the man you’re going to live with.”
Samira suffered from complications during the birth of her first child. She bled for 10 days after the birth. During the 16 days she spent in the hospital, she could not walk or hold her baby.
Now 28 years old, she continues to suffer from deep-vein thrombosis, caused by the loss of blood during her first childbirth. She continues to have pains in her legs and often goes to the hospital.
Her medical problems, due to giving birth at an early age, and the fact that she is now separated from her second husband, have prevented her from maintaining employment in the capital, Sana'a.
Early marriage is "one of the biggest development challenges in Yemen,” said Naseem Ur Rehman, chief information officer for UNICEF in Sana'a. "This is because no groups have yet outgrown the practice."
Available data suggests early marriage is a deeply entrenched cultural tradition in this conservative Muslim and extremely impoverished country.
According to Yemen's most recent Demographic, Maternal and Child Health Survey (DMCHS), conducted in 1997, 48 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 had been married before the age of 18. Fourteen percent, meanwhile, had been married before 15. While 57 percent of girls in the poorest 20 percent of the population are married before 18, even in the richest quintile more than 35 percent were married early.
Ur Rehman stressed that marriage usually ends a girl’s educational prospects, which has wide implications for development in a country with one of the largest education gaps in the world. “A mother who isn’t educated and free is imprisoned,” he says, “and is trapped in the cycle of reproduction.”
The consequences of early marriage are far-reaching, say experts.
Yemen has one of the world’s highest child mortality rates. UNICEF’s 2006 State of the World’s Children report ranks Yemen 43 of 192 countries in its under-five mortality rankings.
According to the DMCHS, the largest factor contributing to high infant mortality is that children are often born to mothers under 20 years of age, and are therefore 25 percent more likely to die before their fifth birthday.
A 2005 UNICEF report on early marriage attributed the dangers of early pregnancy to the fact that women’s bodies are still developing until age 20. In early pregnancy, the mother’s body competes with the child’s for needed nutrients, ultimately depriving both.
Further, when a girl gives birth before her body has fully developed, she often has difficulty passing the child, increasing the likelihood of miscarriage or other maternal complications, such as haemorrhaging or obstetric fistula (a debilitating condition where a mother’s digestive organs are damaged during child birth).
Maternity-related deaths represent the largest cause of death for women of childbearing age, accounting for 42 percent of all deaths of women between the ages of 15 and 49.
Early marriage is also associated with high birth rates, according to the DMCHS. Along with diminishing oil and water reserves, population growth is one of the three most significant developmental challenges facing Yemen, as Jeffrey Sachs, the architect of the UN Millennium Development Goals, told IRIN last year. UNICEF lists Yemen as having the fourth fastest growing population in the world.
Poverty and tradition fuels early marriages
Amani Salem, executive manager of the Shima Network, an independent network of NGOs focused on violence against women, counts poverty, tradition and lack of education as the primary causes of early marriage in Yemen.
In a 2004 study, sponsored by Oxfam UK, Shima cited poverty as the most important reason for early marriage according to women, while "moral concerns" were most important to men.
Traditionally, in Yemeni society, the girl will live with the husband's family after marriage. Her role is then generally limited to domestic responsibilities, while the husband earns money for the extended family.
"Girls are seen as consumers and boys as providers," says Salem. Families place much more value on the education of boys, therefore, while girls – as long as they remain unmarried – are viewed as economic burdens. Thus, "people want to get rid of their daughters", Salem says.
The Shima study also revealed a high value placed on the virginity and moral virtue of girls throughout all segments of Yemeni society. According to researchers, this places pressure on families to marry their girls earlier so as to reduce the possibility of premarital sex.
Currently, the Shima Network is the most active group working to combat the practice of early marriage.
Supported by Oxfam, a campaign of public education and advocacy is currently underway to change attitudes towards the role of girls in society and the development process, and to educate families on the health consequences of early pregnancy.