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At a glance: Yemen

A brave young girl who defied child marriage brings change to Yemen

© UNICEF Yemen/2009/Rehman
Nojoud (third from left) enjoys playing with her brothers and sisters and being a child again at home in Yemen.

By Naseem-Ur-Rehman

SANA’A, Yemen, 24 July 2009 – Defying child marriage was unheard of in Yemen until Nojoud Ali, 10, went to court in Sana’a and asked for divorce. Ending what she described as a “nightmare married life,” the court granted her a divorce from her 30-year-old husband.

Nojoud is no ordinary girl. Her courageous step drew huge media attention and paved the way for social and legal action. In the coming weeks, the Yemeni Parliament is expected to take up a bill mandating that girls cannot be married until the age of 18.

Yemen's challenge – to accept the reality and hazards of child marriages – has not been easy. The custom of early marriage has long been accepted in this traditional, conservative society.

A recent study by Sana’a University revealed that the average age of marriage in rural villages is around 12 or 13. And according to the International Centre for Research on Women, up to half of girls in Yemen are married before they turn 18.

High maternal mortality
The practice means Yemen’s rates of maternal and neo-natal mortality are among the highest in the world, with 365 women and 41 babies dying for every 100,000 live births. Young mothers under 15 are five times more likely to die than women in their twenties from delivery complications.

But Yemen's efforts to stop forced child marriages are gaining ground. A subject that was once taboo is now being discussed in homes, villages and political circles. Nojoud's story is on everyone's lips.

Along with advocacy for effective legislative prohibiting child marriage, UNICEF is supporting communities as they become more informed about the social, medical and psychological effects of the practice. Forums bring religious, political and education leaders together to discuss how they can play a role in ending it.

Media advocacy
The media has been a strong ally in this effort. To help, UNICEF has trained some 200 rural journalists on issues that often go unreported, such as child marriage, maternal mortality, girls’ education and trafficking of children.

© UNICEF Yemen/2009/Rehman
UNICEF Representative in Yemen Aboudou Karimou Adjibade (left) visits Nojoud (third from left) and her family, speaking with her parents about the importance of girls' education and the hazards of child marriage.

"When you bring the sensitive issues out of the closet, you can be taken by surprise by the impact it can have on those who suffer in silence. Advocacy against the acceptance of harmful practices is the first critical step we must take," said UNICEF Representative in Yemen Aboudou Karimou Adjibade.

The journey is a long one. The country has transcended denial but has yet to build a national consensus for declaring child marriages unlawful. 

Picking up the pieces
Until that happens, Nojoud is picking up the pieces of her interrupted childhood. “I am keeping my hopes high. I enjoy being back in school and will work hard to become a lawyer," she said.

“I now realize the mistake and will never put another of my daughters into child marriage,” said Nojoud’s father. “Daughters will get married when they get to the right age.”



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