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Human Trafficking Center

Spotlight: Child Marriage in Yemen

child marriage Yemen


Feb 2016


by Katie Smedema, Research Assistant

“… I learned that marriages to little girls are not unusual in the countryside, so for these people, I didn’t seem like an exception.  There is even a tribal proverb [in Yemen] that says, ‘To guarantee a happy marriage, marry a nine-year-old girl.’”

-Nujood Ali, I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

In Yemen, there presently is no legal minimum age of marriage.  The previous law, which set the minimum age for marriage at 15, was abolished in 1999 after religious conservatives argued that it was un-Islamic to state a specific minimum age. Child marriage, also called early marriage, can be a form of human trafficking since marrying a “child” (anyone under the age of 18 according to international law) may occur through force, fraud, or coercion- for the parents as well as the child.

Islam and Child Marriage

In the Quran, there is no explicitly stated minimum age for marriage, though some Islamic cultures, including some parts of Yemen, accept that child marriage is allowed as long as the marriage is not consummated until the child has reached puberty.  The Prophet Muhammed’s marriage to Aisha when she was only nine is used by some Yemenis as justification for early marriage in the Muslim world, although her age at time of marriage and at consummation is debated, with some scholars saying she was not married until she was 20.  While child marriage is not unique to Islam or Yemen, it is the local interpretation of Islam in Yemen that encourages the longstanding cultural practice.

Nujood’s Story

In 2008, Nujood Ali brought the issue of child marriage to the international spotlight when she was granted a divorce at the age of 10. Her story illustrates the circumstances leading to child marriage in impoverished communities all over Yemen.  Nujood’s older sister was raped, forcing her family to flee their rural village and move to Sana’a, the capital.  In order to protect the family’s honor, the daughter was married to her rapist.  Nujood’s father had no education, leaving him unqualified for many jobs in the capital.  

One of his few options for work in the city was to hang out in town and hope to be picked up as a day laborer.  His wife and children begged on the streets.  After the rape of her older sister, Nujood’s father was worried that she would fall to the same fate, so he hastily married her off, around age ten (she does not know her exact age), to a much older man who promised not to touch her until she reached puberty.  However, once he had her home in his village, far from her family, he raped and beat her night after night.  She took a chance and ran away to the courthouse where she was lucky to be granted a divorce.

International Attention

A 2011 report by Human Rights Watch lists a few principle factors that place young Yemeni girls at risk of early marriage:  

  • First, many families are large and impoverished and marry their daughters young as they are unable to support them anymore.  These families believe that the best thing they can do for their daughters is to marry them in order to secure their futures.  
  • Second, families want the dowry money from the marriage, and older men often give higher dowries.  
  • Third, early marriage can help ensure the girl is still a virgin, something of the utmost cultural importance.

Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have been pushing hard for Yemen to include a minimum marriage age in their newest constitution.  While this is a good step that will likely reduce the prevalence of child marriage in some major cities, it will not eradicate the problem from the country entirely.  Most of the population lives in rural villages governed by tribal sheikhs where the government has little influence.  


Child marriage is part of Yemeni culture and is often a result of poverty and a lack of education.  The way to end child marriage in Yemen is to alleviate poverty and spread education, including not just formal classroom education, but also education on birth control and family planning, health risks involved in young girls giving birth, and the benefits of allowing women legitimate access to jobs so they can help provide income for their families.  

Moreover, the sheikhs of each tribe must be involved in promoting this education and making strides to alleviate poverty.  The solution cannot come from the outside.  In order for changes to happen in the majority of Yemen, local leaders must take charge and use their influence to change the custom of child marriage in Yemen.

Photo via Tanay Mondal.

About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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2 Responses to “Spotlight: Child Marriage in Yemen”

  1. Women for Wives: State Enabled Exploitation in China and North Korea » True Freedom Foundation

    […] often forced marriage is framed as an issue of culture, socio-economic need, or religion. Yet forced marriage stretches far beyond these perimeters. […]

  2. Women for Wives: State Enabled Exploitation in China and North Korea | Human Trafficking Center

    […] often forced marriage is framed as an issue of culture, socio-economic need, or religion. Yet forced marriage stretches far beyond these perimeters. […]

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