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Yemen: where men marry children

Fathers marry off pre-teen daughters here for many reasons, not least to remarry themselves.

SANAA, Yemen — A new white dress, chains of gold jewelry sparkling brightly and more attention than this 13-year-old girl had ever received before: It was like playing dress-up, but better, for Zainab Hussein.

“I’m a bride and I’m getting married!” she bragged to her friend, showing off her new jewelry.

A few days later, Zainab, who’d barely reached full growth, was married off to a 30-year-old groom who also was her cousin. He paid $5,000 to Zainab’s father for his child bride.

Now 28, she says of the experience: “It was very difficult. I still don’t know who to blame. Blame myself? Blame my father? Or my mother? I don’t know. I blamed my parents a lot.”

There’s much about her marriage that Zainab prefers not to recall. She had dreamed of becoming a doctor, but talks about it as if it were someone else’s dream. She laughs occasionally and nervously, bitter and confused emotions about her early marriage bubbling toward the surface.

The ancient tradition of early marriage remains widely practiced in this country the United Nations qualifies as one of the poorest on the planet. Three million to 5 million Yemeni girls who live mostly in rural areas are often married barely into their teens, and sometimes younger, according to an estimate by the Women's National Committee.

Official figures for the average age of marriage don’t exist. A recent study sponsored by OXFAM estimates that over half of Yemeni girls are married before they’re 18, but the Women National Committee believes that in reality early marriage is much more widespread.

Yemen emerged from centuries of isolation following a revolution in 1962, which established a modern republic. Without the resources of its oil-rich neighbors in the Gulf, it continues to be one of the poorest and most under-educated of Arab countries. Running water, electricity, education and other services are lacking in many rural areas.

Only 66 percent of the population had “improved drinking water sources” in 2006, Unicef found. Nearly half the population lives on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank, and the country has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

There’s no absence of protest against early marriage in Yemen. Local development organizations, along with U.N. agencies and the many international NGOs here, have lobbied since 2000 for a law that criminalizes marriage for women younger than 18. Last year, a draft
law settled on 17 as a compromise, but it failed in parliament due to what activists describe as strong opposition from influential conservatives.

And this week, dozens of Yemenis demonstrated in front of parliament in a show of support for  a proposed new draft law that specifies the minimum marriage age for women at 17. Yemeni rights organizations have been lobbying the government on the new draft law since last year, but it has yet to be ratified due to opposition from religious conservatives.

Changing values and deeply rooted traditions, particularly one such as early marriage, will be tough here. Fathers believe they are protecting their daughters’ chastity and purity from what are considered the dangers of adolescence when young men and women become sexually aware. If a girl entered a romantic or sexual relationship before marriage, it would damage a family’s honor. Some say earlier marriages offer security to these brides.

Development agencies point to a prevalence of early marriage in struggling countries and highlight those that succeeded at development and growth only after abolishing the practice.