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Yemen: where men marry children

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

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.