Poverty and unemployment, exacerbated by the current political unrest, are driving up child marriages in Dhamar Governorate and elsewhere in Yemen, says Asmaa al-Masri, a sociologist at Dhamar University.
Several hundred girls in Dhamar have been forced into early marriages because their families need money, she told IRIN. "The number of child marriage victims is increasing, but no one pays attention to the problem because of the political unrest."
Draft legislation on "safe motherhood", including articles banning child marriages, has not been debated as a result of the ongoing political unrest which interrupted parliament business, said MP Mohammed Qowarah, adding: “If there had been no protests, the parliament would have taken good steps towards tackling the phenomenon."
Figures on the extent of early marriage in Yemen vary, but all indicators suggest the problem is widespread. A 2009 report by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour estimated that 25 percent of all females marry before the age of 15.
According to an 8 December report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the turmoil which has swept Yemen since early 2011 has overshadowed the plight of child brides.
"Marrying early cut short their education,” said the report. “Some said they had been subjected to marital rape and domestic abuse. There is no legal minimum age for girls to marry in Yemen. Many girls are forced into marriage and some are as young as eight.”
Yemen's political crisis has left child marriage at the bottom of the political agenda, said Nadya Khalife, an HRW women's rights researcher covering the Middle East and North Africa.
"But now is the time to move on this issue, setting the minimum age for marriage at 18, to ensure that girls and women, who played a major role in Yemen's protest movement, will also contribute to shaping Yemen's future," she said.
According to Widad al-Badwi, a human rights activist, many rape and early marriage crimes go unreported in Yemen.
"Women are oppressed,” said al-Badwi, who participated in the launch of a 16-day nationwide awareness campaign in the media by the UN Population Fund, UNFPA, from 25 November to 10 December aimed at fighting domestic violence.
The HRW report concluded that girls are being forced into marriage by their families, and then having no control over whether and when to bear children and other important aspects of their lives.
"Marriage of child girls is most often short-lived. It ends up in the child bride having trauma after being raped or abused by the husband,” said sociologist al-Masri.
According to Arwa Omar, a social science teacher with more than 20 years experience in several all-girl schools in the capital Sana’a, child marriage is commonplace but ends up in failure.
|Girls are engaged even at age five, but marriage may take place just four or five years later…Child brides feel happy with the new clothes and jewelry they get ahead of the wedding party. But later on, they pay a big price|
“In some tribal communities, girls are engaged even at age five, but marriage may take place just four or five years later," Omar said. "Child brides feel happy with the new clothes and jewelry they get ahead of the wedding party. But later on, they pay a big price for that… A child girl gets nothing from marriage except dropping out of school and having trauma."
Mohammed Ali Nasser, a judge at Dhamar Governorate’s penal court, said a dozen child marriage contracts had been annulled by the court in the past three months.
"Child marriages fail as child brides often run away," he told IRIN. Such cases end up in court, with the husband usually claiming parents of the bride should repay him for the cost of the wedding (up to the equivalent of US$4,500), he added.
"Birth-related complications are common among underage mothers in Yemen. Many cases of child mothers under age 15 died in labour," said Intesar Ali, an obstetrics and gynaecology specialist at the government-run al-Thawrah Hospital in Sana’a.
A report by the World Population Foundation says girls aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die in childbirth as those in their twenties, and girls under 15 are five times as likely to die as those in their twenties.
According to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Yemeni women face a lifetime risk of maternal death which is nearly four times higher than the average for the region. The rate of infant mortality is around 60 deaths per 1,000 live births, which is among the highest worldwide.
"International donors invest millions of dollars on education and health reform in Yemen," HRW's Khalife said. "Without a ban on child marriage, none of the international aid will prevent girls from being forced to leave school and from the health risks of child marriage."