Child Marriage – Past, Present and Future.

This article was originally published in Yemen Today in 2009.

by: Mahwash Ajaz.

How does the world know 9 year old Arwa Abdu Muhammad and 10 year old Nujood Ali?

They are not famous for being concert pianists or achieving high grades in an international examination or breaking a sports world record. Their claim to fame is not something children of that age usually become famous for.

They are famous because they got married and got divorced before they had a chance to celebrate their twelfth birthday. At the age when they were supposed to be playing with dolls and chasing their friends around trees – they are fleeing from abusive husbands and already trying to deal with marital rape.

More than a quarter of the females in Yemen marry before age 15, says a report by the Social Affairs Ministry. Sana University researchers have found that the average age of marriage in the rural areas of Yemen is 12-13 years. In 1992 a Yemeni law stated the minimum age of marriage to be 15. But cultural traditions and socio-economic coordinates often prevent this law from being a reality.

According to other various news reports and in-depth analysis, it is shocking to discover how much role poverty plays in this brand of affairs. Sometimes young girls are married to men much older than them only because they can pay a certain price for their virginity. Sometimes they are married off because the father of the girl is not powerful enough to withstand the pressure of a social superior. All of this happens without considering for even a moment what would happen to the fragile human being who is now handed over to be married – at an age where her mind and body are both under-developed and the idea of a ‘bride’ is something that exists bleakly in the imagination.

The practice of under-age marriages provide for not only social and moral honor but also a force of history that is wrapped up in a cloak of convenience. Although many countries have long abolished under-age marriages, cultures all across the world still struggle with the shadow of this shameful practice.

For example, the Russian Orthodox Church in the eighteenth century prescribed minimum ages of marriage (12 years for girls). The primary objective why it did that was because peasant men were marrying off their young sons in childhood to young adult women in order to recruit additional adult workers to the household. This also often led to sexual abuse at the hands of the father in law. This practice was known as ‘shokhachestvo’ which was considered quite common during that time.

Marriages of the very young were established customs in the Osage Nation, a tribe much in power in the United States in the 17th century. Though these marriages were mainly non-sexual and social by nature, by the 1890s the National Council of the Osage Nation passed a law which prohibited the marriage of any citizen under the age of 16. It also had a heavy fine (1000 dollars) and/or three years in prison.

In England, up until 1819, scholars such as James Mill were writing treatises supporting the exclusion of women from the mainframe society since they were already represented by husbands. Many scholars stood up to these arguments by stating that a major reason why women were kept at bay from mainstream life was due to the institutionalization of this very phenomenon. The government sanctioned rape in marriage. What is even more known to the world is that the monarchs in England sanctioned under age marriages quite freely. Queen Victoria’s own daughter was only 17 when she married Frederick of Prussia. Letters of the queen often expressed her fine anger at the complete powerlessness of monarchs such as herself in marital relationships.

Marriage to a younger girl before the fourth century BC in India was a common practice. The Hindu religion decreed that the man should be three times older than the girl, thus a man marrying a ten year old should be thirty, an eight year old girl should marry a man of twenty-four and so on. One pragmatical Hindu reformer suggested that a law be made prohibiting the marriage of a man over the age of 45 with a girl younger than twelve. According to the some ancient scripts the marriageable girls were divided into five ages: seven, eight, nine, ten and above ten. The age of seven was considered the best for marriage. These trends continued well up until the nineteenth century until the British Raj finally stepped into the subcontinent and made these practices illegal.

Under the Soviet Union, the obligation to finish school prevented child marriages. However as the Union fell and the economic and social systems destabilized, families yielded to tradition and girls as young as 13 years of age are given into matrimony.

In the time of the Ottoman Empire, early marriages and childhood betrothal were common. In the capital, Istanbul, ages were relatively high (around 22, 23 years for a woman and 30 or more for men) but younger ages were more typical as a whole. Azerbaijan and Georgia are signatory to many human rights agreements such as Convention on Consent to Marriage (age allowed is 15). The legal age of marriage now in Turkey is 18 however estimates show that 37 percent of women marry before the age of 15.

In the early twentieth century there rose an outcry in order to condemn the marriage of female minors in the Arab world. In many Muslim societies, families often believe that the longer a girl remains at her father’s house, the more tarnished the reputation of the family. In Africa, UNICEF estimate that 42 per cent of girls are married before the age of 18 and in some African countries the figure is much higher, such as in Niger where there is a 76 per cent incidence of child marriage. In Indonesia, Marriage Law dictates the minimum age of marriage to be 16.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recommends the minimum age of marriage to be 18. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 19) provides every child with the right to protection from all forms of physical and mental violence injury or abuse, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parents, guardian, or any other person. It is strange thus to see that globally 36 percent of women were married before the age of 18. 14 million adolescents between 15 to 19 years of age give birth each year, according to UNICEF.

These under-age marriages more often not result in sexual abuse, domestic violence and serious physical and mental health disturbances. In the case of Fawziya Ammodi however the result was far more tragic than any of the consequences listed above. This 12-year-old Yemeni female was forced to drop out of school and married off to a man 12 years her senior. Not very long after that, Fawziya died after severe bleeding while giving birth to a child. Her offspring could not survive either.

Underage marriages pose serious risks to health of the individuals. In a UNICEF released statement it was found that girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. There is also a risk of obstetric fistula (a condition resulting from lack of obstetric care or underage marriage; blood flow is cut off to the surrounding tissues during childbirth), anemia, heavy bleeding, eclempsia and infection to young girls. These risks develop due to the fact that the bodies of young girls under the age of 15 fail to fully develop in order to sustain sexual intercourse and childbirth. Intercourse at this age may also lead to risks of HIV/AIDS infections since husbands may already be infected with the diseases and the young bride may not have any idea or awareness of protected or safe sex. Thus the commonly practiced vast age differences also lead to the increase in the vulnerability of a young girl in being infected from not only HIV/AIDS but other sexually transmitted diseases.

It is our job to protect our children and our society from practices which are exploiting the rights of the innocent. Bartering off children of fragile age in the name of poverty and social honor are not only despicable practices but an eyesore on the face of morality for any nation. Protecting a human being’s childhood from horrors such as marital rape and other forms of sexual assault is the duty of not only the government, but each and every person who can understand the difference between right and wrong.

There are no grey areas as far as this situation is concerned. The religious factions have argued to some merit the notion of underage marriage – but marriage in poverty-stricken countries are more often than not based on financial gain and social security rather than religious right. Daughters are often bartered for business instead of sending them to schools and providing food for them at meal times. Many of the guardians and parents use religion and tradition to dispose responsibilities of the bringing up of their daughters.

Many Nujoods and Arwas and Fawziyas suffer anonymously at the hands of this rationalization that can bring some temporary relief to the consciences of their guardians – but can they really sleep well at night knowing that their child is in the hands of someone who quite possibly will take physical and psychological advantage of her in every way? Who will destroy her future, prevent her from developing into a wholesome individual and maybe even give her a venereal disease that will result in a deteriorating body and soul? Can these parents honestly believe that a few US dollars can compensate for the total annihilation of the life of a nine year old girl and make up for a childhood that went as unexplored as it went exploited?

I know I can’t.


  1. Robin Binsha – Russian women, 1698-197: experience and expression, an anthology of sources. Indiana University Press, 2002, p. 63.
  2. Suad Joseph, Afsaneh Najmabadi – Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures: Family, law, and politics. BRILL 2003, p. 50.
  3. Louis F. Burns – A history of the Osage people, University of Alabama Press, 2004, p. 264
  4. Alison Twells – British women’s history: a documentary history from the Enlightenment to World War I. IB Tauris 2007, p. 249.
  5. Tahir Al Haddad (translated by Ronak Husni and Daniel L. Newman) – Muslim women in law and society: Routledge, 2007, p. 127.
  6. Timothy Lindsey – Indonesia: Law and society, Federation Press 2008, p. 297.
  7. Robert F. Worth, New York Times – Tiny Voices Defy Child Marriages in Yemen
  8. Mohammad Jamjoom, CNN International – Yemeni girl, 12, dies in painful childbirth
  9. Forward UK – Child and Forced Marriage
  10. Ice – Child Marriage in Ancient India

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