Child marriages result in serious violations of the rights of girls with long-lasting consequences. Girls and women who are forced into marriage are deprived of the right to decide whether or not to marry, whom to marry, when to marry, and whether and when to have children.
Child marriages also contribute to violations of girls’ and women’s other rights, including the rights to health, education, employment, and the right to live free from violence and discrimination.
Full and Free Consent to Marriage
The right of men and women to enter into marriage only with their full and free consent is well established in international human rights law. Articles 16 of CEDAW and the Universal Declaration for Human Rights (UDHR), article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the UN Convention on Consent to Marriage recognize people’s right to marry when both spouses are able to consent to a marriage. These treaties consider children as incapable of consenting to marriage because they are unable to fully understand the concept of marriage and a sexual relationship within marriage and its consequences. A sexual relationship within marriage can be especially dangerous in places like Yemen where the law does not recognize marital rape as a criminal offense and thus facilitates sexual abuse.
Older children have the right to participate in decisions about their lives and may have the capacity to grasp the implications of marriage. In Yemen, however, a girl’s consent to marriage is frequently neither sought nor considered. Article 23 of the Personal Status Law provides that a previously married woman or a widow, in other words a non-virgin, must consent to marriage, however, according to the law, a virgin’s silence signifies her consent. Yemen’s Personal Status Law allows girls to be married at any age and further discriminates against girls and women by not requiring their full and free consent for marriage. The decision to marry is often made by the girl’s or woman’s guardian, as some of the cases described below indicate.
In cases when girls do agree to marry, they may not be aware of the implications of marriage or able to make an informed decision. Eighteen-year-old Su’ad was married when she was 14. She told Human Rights Watch:
I only finished second grade. I didn’t like school and quit, so my mother told me to sit in the kitchen. My uncle asked me if I want to marry this person and I said ‘yes,’ but I didn’t know what marriage was. I met my husband for the first time on our wedding night. Reflecting back on her marriage at age 13 or 14 shortly after her first menstrual period, Bushra, who is now 26 years old, told Human Rights Watch:I was young to get married… I wanted to get married then… [but] my mind was too little.
The question of whether a girl is capable of providing her full and free consent to marriage becomes more complex as she grows older. However, even older girls are not always able to make an informed decision about marriage. Salma was 17 years old with only one year of secondary school left when she decided to marry a man she did not know. When we asked her why she decided to marry when she was so close to finishing school, she told Human Rights Watch: “I didn’t know my husband beforehand. He came and I said ‘yes’.” Her mother who was present during Salma’s interview told us, “She wasn’t really prepared [to get married], and now she’s one month pregnant.
Even when girls are mature enough to understand and consent to marriage, they are not always asked whether they want to get married, and they may have no say in choosing their future spouse. They may not even know the person they are to marry, and only meet their spouse for the first time on their wedding night. Their families—fathers or other male relatives—choose their future husbands for them.Arwa was married when she was 15 years old. Now 21, she told Human Rights Watch:
I didn’t want to get married because I loved someone else.
More than half of the women and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had no choice in choosing their spouse. Sultana was married at 16, in 2009. She told us:
I finished seventh grade, and left [school] because of marriage….I didn’t want to get married, but my father forced me to. He told me that education won’t do anything for me. He said ‘get married and live in splendor’….I didn’t know my husband beforehand. My father told me that I have to agree [to get married]… I had no choice.
Similarly, 25-year-old Amal, who was married when she was 15, explained:
The girl is put under an imposition, and there’s no benefit in making trouble. Sometimes, the girl’s marriage contract is concluded without her knowledge. Another woman, Kawkab, told Human Rights Watch that she was married at 16, explaining:I didn’t want to get married…but the decision was stringent….My father and father-in-law went to court, and my father came back to the house and told me “You’re married.” I was surprised, I knew that I would be married one day, but I didn’t know that this would be the day.
Sexual and Reproductive Health, Maternal and Child Mortality
In traditional societies where child marriage is common, including Yemen, girls and women are expected to become pregnant soon after marriage. There are serious risks to the health and lives of young mothers and their children associated with early pregnancy and childbirth. These increased risks are not only related to age, but also to girls’ low levels of education, low social status, lack of access to health related information, and health services.
Worldwide, it is estimated that complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death for young women between 15 and 19. Studies show that girls in their teens are twice as likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth related causes. Young girls between the ages of 10 and 14 are five times more likely to die during delivery than mothers who are between 20 and 24.
Yemen has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the Middle East and North Africa region, estimated at 210 deaths per 100,000 live births. Maternal mortality in Yemen is the cause of approximately 39 percent of all deaths for women of reproductive age, and child marriage is an important factor. Government data indicate that 74.2 percent of all maternal deaths occur in cases of girls or women who were married before they reached 20 years old. Most deaths occur in rural areas, where girls are more likely to be married at a younger age and where 80 percent of Yemen’s population lives. It is estimated that 18 percent of maternal deaths in Yemen occur during pregnancy and 82 percent during delivery. Sixty four percent of maternal deaths occur at home, and without the presence of a skilled birth attendant. The majority of pregnant women in Yemen (almost 80 percent) deliver at home. Home deliveries in rural areas are especially risky, where long distances between homes and health facilities make it difficult for women to access emergency obstetric care. Even when emergency care is available, it is often not timely or adequate as most health facilities have a shortage of staff and supplies. Nine percent of maternal deaths occur en route to a hospital, and 24 percent occur at a health facility. It is estimated that 38 percent of women in labor arrive at a hospital in critical or morbid condition.
Studies on other countries show that women who marry early have the highest proportion of unfavorable pregnancy outcomes at all stages throughout their childbearing years. One study indicated women who married before age 16 carried twice the risk of spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) and approximately four times the combined risk of fetal death and infant mortality.
Amal, who is 25 years old and from Haima, was married when she was 15 and had her only daughter when she was 17. She told Human Rights Watch that she’s been pregnant six times. She miscarried three times, and had two abortions. “One baby died inside of me when it was six months old,” she said. “The other baby … they took him out of my stomach and he was already dead.”
Seventeen-year-old Sultana was married at 16 and was pregnant when we met her. She said:
I miscarried once when I was two months pregnant, then I got pregnant again after four months, and I miscarried when I was five months. This is my third pregnancy… A woman here is only for reproduction.
According to the organization Save the Children young girls who marry early are more likely to have frequent, and often closely spaced, pregnancies. Household responsibilities, and other factors that may cause stress and anxiety, may further aggravate the negative outcome of pregnancies.
Girls who are undernourished may be at an increased risk of anemia resulting from deficiencies of vital nutrients such as iron, vitamin A, or folic acid. It is often difficult for young girls whose lives are to a large extent controlled by their husbands and unsympathetic in-laws to advocate for adequate food and nutrition for themselves. If they become pregnant while still in their adolescence, lack of adequate nutrition places babies at risk of low birth weight. The low status of young mothers, gender-based violence, and discrimination against them in the home may limit their access to reproductive and sexual health services and information, even in cases of emergency.
The low social status of young married girls and their lack of empowerment in the household severely limit their ability to make decisions about their own health and the health of their children. Najla did not know exactly how old she is, but she said that she was married soon after completing her second year in secondary school, which would have made her about 15 or 16 at the time of her marriage. She has been married for seven years and has two children who were likely born before she was 18 years old. She explained how she was denied medical treatment by her in-laws.
I was pregnant with the second child when my firstborn was only five months old. For five days, I bled severely and I thought it was just my period. My mother-in-law knew what was happening to me, but she wouldn’t tell me anything. They [my in-laws] wouldn’t let me go to the hospital and wouldn’t tell my husband what was going on with me. When I became very dizzy, they finally took me to the hospital, but at the hospital they didn’t stop the bleeding and didn’t give me any treatment. I had to lie on my back for six months during my [second] pregnancy and I needed 500 cc of blood. The doctor told me it’s because I married early.
Women requiring emergency obstetric care may be denied admission to the hospital if they lack the authorization of their male guardians, most often their husbands. Yemen’s Ministry of Health has found that advance permission from the husband to access health care at a medical center is one of the major obstacles to treatment, including emergency treatment. These authorizations are a common practice although not a legal requirement in Yemen.
Early pregnancy and childbirth also have adverse consequences for infants. Babies born to young mothers run a 30-percent increased risk of dying during their first year of life. Babies may have a low birth weight as a consequence of their mother’s poor nutritional status while pregnant, and babies with low birth weight are 5 to 30 times more likely to die than babies of normal weight. Young mothers are less likely to get prenatal care and often do not have enough information about proper nutrition while pregnant to nurture themselves and babies.
Many girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch, especially younger ones, had little or no knowledge about sexual intercourse before they were married. Neither their mothers, older sisters, nor other female relatives told them what to expect on their wedding night. Sultana, who was married at 16, said, “My brother and sister told me some things about the wedding night, but not everything.” Husnia, married at 16, told Human Rights Watch:
I didn’t know anything about marriage or pregnancy.
In Yemen, like in many societies around the world where family honor is predicated on the “honor” of daughters, girls are expected to be virgins when they marry. Often, therefore, discussions about sex are taboo, and girls have limited or no knowledge about family planning, including the use of contraceptives.
Human Rights Watch asked Fatima, who was married at 12, about her use of contraceptives, and she replied:
I slept with my husband, but I don’t take birth control pills. I don’t know what they are.”
In Yemen only 28 percent of married women between the ages of 15 and 49 stated that they use some form of contraception, making this rate one of the lowest in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2003, the most recent year for which such information is available, 39 percent of Yemeni women who did not wish to become pregnant did not use any form of contraception. In some cases, women may be prevented by their husbands from using any form of contraception, and from obtaining information on contraception, the spacing of children, or other reproductive health issues.
Sexual Violence, Domestic Abuse, and Abandonment
The World Health Organization (WHO) found in a multi-country survey on violence against women that married girls between 15 and 19 are more likely to experience domestic violence than older married women.
Some of the girls and women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they were verbally or physically assaulted by their husbands, in-laws, and other members of the husband’s household. Married girls and women in Yemen often live with their husband, his parents, male siblings and their wives, children, and unwed sisters. Power and authority in the household is usually held by men and older women, and this can place new brides, especially if they are young, at greater risk of abuse and violence.
Rhadia was married at 16, and has lived with her husband and in-laws for over eight years. She told Human Rights Watch that only her children keep her in a marriage that has made her life “full of sadness and bitterness.” She told us that she is abused by her husband and in-laws:
He upsets me a lot, and he beats me. One day he beat me because of his mother. She tells him that I don’t do anything at home. I had problems [with my husband and in-laws] when I first had my son, but I can’t leave now because of my children…They [my family and in-laws] ruined me. They ruined my life.
Twenty-three year-old Huda, from Ma’reb, was married when she was 14. She said:
I refused to get married … I used to escape from the house and return to my family. I didn’t want to stay there [at her husband’s home]. They [her in-laws] used to give me a hard time. I would do all the housework.
Su’ad, who is 18 and lives with her in-laws, said:
I was young and went to a big house. I didn’t know how to cook or do anything. They [husband’s family] would yell at me….One day my sister-in-law hit me because I was yelling at her children to get up.
Afrah is 16 years old and had been married for five months when she spoke to Human Rights Watch. Her husband is 18 years old. She said:
My mother-in-law gives us problems. From the first day, there were problems. She says that I took her son away from her. His mother chose me … and now she doesn’t want me anymore. She wants us to divorce. I’m three months pregnant. I don’t know if they [my husband and in-laws] will take him [the baby] from me…. His mother encouraged him to leave me and to marry again. He’s fine with it. It’s normal for him because he’s young and has a lot of time. He doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong. They want us to get a divorce and I don’t know how I will live later with my baby.
Fourteen-year-old Fatima was married to a man in his late twenties who lived in the same house with her husband’s mother, brothers, and sister. She told us:
I used to argue with my mother-in-law because she says I can’t do anything. He [her husband] hit me once with his hand on the left side of my face and on the right side of my face and ruptured my ear. He used to hit me all over my body, he used to kick me with his feet and call me all sorts of names. I used to remain silent, but would complain to my mother. She would tell me to remain tolerant, all girls go through the same, this is nothing new. Since he hit me, I want to divorce him.
The lack of a support system may exacerbate the vulnerability of married girls.Sometimes girls who are married young, and those who are forced into marriage, cannot find support and assistance in their own families. Girls may run away from their husbands and attempt to go back to their own families’ homes, expecting to receive help, but are often told to endure their tribulations because all married women must tolerate their husbands, their in-laws, and their children.
Thuraya is 27 years old. She was married when she was about 16 or 17 years old. She told Human Rights Watch:
I would go back to my father’s house and my family would tell me that these are normal problems. They would say that a woman has to have patience and would return me to my husband’s home as if I was wrong, and I would think that maybe I was wrong after all. I would be quiet … just to avoid problems.
WHO also found that married girls and young women with low levels of education are at a greater risk of physical and sexual violence from their spouses than older and more educated women. Research suggests that spousal age difference also contributes to risk factors associated with violence and abuse, including marital rape.
Reem, 14, was married at age 11 to a man 21 years her senior, had not had her first menstrual period when she was married. Reem did not want to have sex with her husband, but he raped her. She said, “He wanted to sleep with me by force.”
As in most countries in the Middle East and North Africa, rape within marriage is not legally recognized as a crime in Yemen. Coerced or non-consensual sex can have particularly long-lasting physical and mental health consequences for young girls because they are still at a formative stage of social and psychological development, shaping their identities and perspectives. Mental health implications may include a sense of worthlessness, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
Reem slit her wrists in an attempt to commit suicide. She said:
They [her husband and in-laws] used to beat me. I took a mousse [razor] and cut my wrists. I bled and became weak, and then fell to the floor.
Marital rape may result in unintended and unwanted pregnancy, sexually-transmitted infections, injuries, and even death. In March 2010, Elham Mahdi Al-Assi, aged 12, died of internal bleeding three days after she was married. Elham was married to a man twice her age. Medical reports indicate that Elham died from severe bleeding caused by tears to her genital and anal area from sexual activity. According to the Associated Press, Elham’s mother said that her daughter complained to her that her husband tied her up and raped her. According to a United Nations 2010 assessment on violence against women in Yemen, hospitals receive many girls who have been subjected to severe injuries resulting from forced sex, but hospitals rarely report these incidents to local authorities.
Other Physical and Psychological Health Consequences
Everything in my body aches, everything from head to toe. I have headaches, my stomach hurts, my back, and my knees, and I have infections.—Zahra, 26 and a mother of five; married when she was 13 or 14, Sanaa, September 6, 2010.
Child marriage can have severe consequences for the physical and psychological health of girls, particularly younger girls, and these consequences may impact women throughout their life. Girls and women are often confined to the home and are expected to take on household work and care for their families, including their in-laws. Girls may be isolated from friends and family, may rarely have anyone to share their concerns with, and may find themselves regularly surrounded by people who ignore or condone their suffering.
Ramzia, 39, and originally from Ma’reb, was married when she was 15 years old. She has eight sons aged between two to 22. She told Human Rights Watch:
My life has been about raising [children], pregnancies, cooking and cleaning. When night time comes, it’s almost like I’m dead.
Fathiya is 30 years old and the mother of seven children. She told Human Rights Watch:
I was 12 years old when I got married. I was a child. They oppressed me by marrying me. All that I’m good for is to be a mother and a home maker…. I’m illiterate. They didn’t teach us anything. If they did, at least I would have benefitted from something. I didn’t know anything about marriage, how to be a mother…I wasn’t thinking about anything. I get upset at myself. I get upset at my father. I get upset from my husband. I have constant headaches and I don’t feel like even speaking. I feel like someone is choking me. There’s so much heaviness on my chest.
Access to Education
The majority of the women we interviewed could not read or write. Some had never attended school while others left school after two or three years of basic education. Almost all of those who had attended school were forced to leave their education to get married. Radhia, who was married at 16, told Human Rights Watch:
My family took me out of school, and my husband said that he doesn’t need me in school.
It is rare for girls who marry to return to school. Afrah was 16 years old and had been married for five months when she spoke to Human Rights Watch. She said:
I completed the first year of intermediate school, and I left to get married. I wanted to continue school, so I wanted to get engaged for three years. But I was only engaged for eight months and my father insisted that I get married. I wanted to go to college, to become a lawyer, but there’s no chance now because I’m going to have a baby.
Most of those women and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch who attended school enjoyed learning and expressed regrets for missing the opportunity to complete their education. Research also shows that the removal of girls from school often denies them the opportunity to develop their intellect and their own independent identities. Magda, 21, was married when she was 14. She said:
I reached sixth grade, and left school to get married. Now, when I see my daughter, I say to myself who’s going to teach her because I can’t. I understood it now when I got older [the value of education].
Demographic and fertility studies have shown that the number of years a girl attends school is directly linked to the postponement of marriage, and therefore the postponement of childbearing. Education enables girls to acquire better skills and enter the labour force. They become more financially independent and better able to choose to delay marriage. Additionally, postponing marriage increases the likelihood that women have children later when they have a better chance of surviving pregnancy and are able to better care for children. Studies have also shown that girls who continue their education are more likely to invest in the education of their children. The organization Save the Children has found that higher levels of education also contribute to an increased use of contraception and reduced rate of infant mortality.
Maha, who is originally from Taizz, is in her twenties. All of her siblings, including four sisters and two brothers, went to school. She got married when she was 16, but waited to have her first child until she completed secondary school. Her husband encouraged her to continue with her education after childbirth and she still hopes to finish her studies and become a pharmacist. She said her education put her in a much better position to understand her reproductive health and nutrition for her infant. When we asked about her access to healthcare information when she was pregnant, she told us, “The nurse told me about breastfeeding and nutrition, and I used to read a lot.”
-Human Rights Watch