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.
According to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA): “It is no coincidence that the same countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East that have high rates of child marriage are those with high poverty rates, birth rates and death rates, greater incidence of conflict and civil strife, and lower levels of overall development, including schooling, employment and health care.”
When Zainab moved to her husband’s rural village, she entered a life of endless toil. She shepherded the goats each day, gathered wood for the stove, and tilled the field as is typical of women’s responsibilities in rural areas. Early every morning she would fetch drinking water from a source hours away.
She carried water even while pregnant, suffering three miscarriages.
Girls between 10 and 14 years old are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women in their early 20s, UNFPA figures show, because their bodies are not yet physically equipped for pregnancy and childbirth.
“In rural areas, marriage is often viewed as bringing a helping hand to the house, to serve the family both inside the house and in the field,” said Hooria Mashhour, deputy chairperson of the Women National Committee.
Zainab said she felt like a stranger among her husband’s family. He returned to his other life in Saudi Arabia two months after they married. She was left alone to wait for his visits.
“When a groom is an older man,” said Fawzia Al-Muraissee, the Yemeni Women’s Union head of family guidance and health, “there’s usually a financial aspect. If the groom works abroad, the father thinks that he’s probably doing well and that his daughter will have a better life.”
The younger the bride, the greater the age difference in the couple, according to a study by Barbara Mensch, titled “Trends in the timing of first marriage,” cited by UNFPA. Based on research in 16 sub-Saharan African countries, the study found that husbands were on average at least 10 years older than their 15- to 19-year-old brides.
“Some believe that older men feel rejuvenated when they marry younger women,” said Mashhour. “On the other hand, it could be a test that a man is still attractive to younger, beautiful women. … From another perspective, a young girl is seen as better able to take care of an older man than an older wife.”
When she bore her first child at 15, Zainab was angry, so angry, she’d strike her daughter in front of her husband’s family to antagonize them.
“I had no feelings for my daughter, even when she got sick,” Zainab says, now ridden with guilt. “I didn’t have any maternal feelings. Now, why would I hit my daughter? She did nothing to deserve punishment. I just needed someone to take care of me and to love me, especially since my husband was away.”
Yemen’s civil society and government organizations, with the support of international development agencies, are working hard to combat early marriage. The Yemeni Women’s Union launched a project last year to raise awareness. Villagers learned of the complications and psychological burden of early marriage and pregnancy.
The villagers said they were unaware of the psychological burden that child brides developed. But their responses were emphatic.
Female villagers said they could not prevent their daughters from being married, Al-Muraissee explained. For example, Zainab’s mother was furious about her daughter being sold off so young, but was powerless to thwart it.
“You have to educate our husbands, because they have the last word,” the villagers told Al-Muraissee.
“And we did,” she said. “We sent men to raise awareness among the husbands.”
Some of the men were deeply affected, and resolved not to marry their daughters at an early age, while others were skeptical and resistant, she said.
Education is squandered on women headed for a lifetime of physical labor, according to local sentiment. It’s a losing investment, and besides, it risks turning their daughters into unmanageable wives, so the perception goes.
The awareness project convinced villagers that an educated woman can contribute not only to her family — such as helping her children learn — but also to the village as a teacher, a midwife, or a healthcare worker for the women. It demonstrated that early marriage continues the cycle of poverty.
Efforts are paying off, but slowly. World Bank figures show that literacy among women age 15 and older improved from around 34 percent in 2005 to more than 40 percent in 2007 following programs such as the Union’s.
Yemeni men say they, too, are victimized by early marriage. Sitting on a rocky ledge in the remote rural town of Al-Qobai, Mohammed Said, 27, gazed deeply at a stretch of barren land, beautiful and haunting. Shyly, he said he wanted to find a husband for his 8-year-old daughter.
He spoke candidly, with no edge of cruelty. His daughter’s price, or "mahr," which would be paid by her groom, seemed to be his only way out of his first and unhappy marriage. He said he needed the mahr money to marry a second wife.
It’s just the way things are in this country, he said.
Men who marry during their adolescence grow unhappy with young brides, said the Yemeni Women’s Union. With polygamy an option, 70 percent of men who married young said they later married a more like-minded second wife of their choosing, and reported being happier,
Teenage bride Zainab said she thinks Yemeni men prefer younger women to mold into what they would like them to be. When her husband became ill and needed to be nursed, she stayed to help him, partly out of sympathy, partly out of fear that she would be unable to take her children with her.
“I couldn’t leave him alone while he was sick,” she says. “That’s not right.”
She became the sole provider for the family, farming and giving birth to three more children.
Zainab forced her husband to move to the capital with her. She continues to care for him, worried about losing her children if she divorces him.
“I couldn’t take it anymore. I was in my 20s but I had aged so much, and I had had enough of rural life. I thought, ‘My daughters will be 12 or 13 and I’ll have to marry them off if I stay here.’ So I moved my family to Sanaa, and decided to take a menial job. I wanted my daughters to go to school and graduate, because I was deprived of an education … and of my childhood.”