SAN’A, Yemen | Thirteen-year-old Sally al-Sabahi stood outside the courthouse earlier this month fiddling with her smudged, half-polished nails. She was hoping to get a divorce, but her husband did not show up.
When Sally was 11, her father married her to 23-year-old Nabil al-Mushahi, a cousin. Since the wedding, she has run away from her husband’s home three times.
“I was afraid of him since the first day,” she said in her parents’ tiny, windowless, stone home after the failed court date. “I don’t want to get married again until after I am dead.”
Sally said she wants a divorce because her husband beat, berated and regularly attempted to rape her. When asked whether he succeeded in the sexual assaults, her long eyelashes lowered toward the floor against her black veil, and she picked at the faded orange and green sheet she was sitting on. She did not answer.
Arranged marriages for girls as young as 9 are common in many parts of Yemen. About half the women in the country are married before they are 18, according to Ahmed al-Quareshi, the head of the Seyaj Organization for the Protection of Children.
The Yemeni parliament has been debating for almost a year a law that would make 17 the minimum age for marriage, but the measure is fiercely contested and has been blocked by hard-line religious leaders.
“It’s a part of their social structure,” Mr. al-Quareshi said. “It’s a tradition to allow marriage at an early age.”
Early marriages are especially common in the countryside, where more than 70 percent of Yemen’s 22 million people live, said Shada Nasser, a lawyer and children’s rights advocate. Rural mothers, often illiterate and former child brides themselves, don’t consider bucking the system, she said.
The young brides, robbed of childhood and education, grow up afraid of their husbands and resenting their children.
“They had dreams,” Ms. Nasser said, “But early marriage broke those dreams.”
As Yemen - the poorest country in the Arab world - seems to grow poorer every year, the child-bride population is growing fast, according to Ms. Nasser. Parents look for husbands for their little girls so they will have fewer mouths to feed.
Money paid by husbands to their brides’ families is also an important source of income. Almost half of Yemenis live on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations.
Before marriage, many future husbands promise the girls’ families that they will not have sex with their brides until the girls are mature, which is generally considered to be about 15 years old. About 10 percent to 20 percent of the new husbands break that promise, according to Ms. Nasser.
It is not just poor families that marry their daughters before puberty, according to Naseem ur-Rehman, a spokesman for the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF. “It cuts across social and economic variations,” he said.
Sometimes, he said, children are married to strengthen tribal relationships.