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.
The early marriages often have dire consequences.
Women who give birth before they are 18 are almost eight times as likely to die in labor than those who give birth in their 20s, Mr. ur-Rehman said. In some parts of Yemen, women are about 60 times more likely to die in childbirth than in the United States.
Fawziya Youssef was 12 when she died in early September, according to Mr. al-Quareshi. Fawziya and her husband, 26, had been married for only a year.
Fawziya died of severe bleeding while delivering a stillborn baby after three days of painful labor. Her parents, however, do not think she died because she was married too young, said Mr. al-Quareshi. In their village in the Hoedeida governorate, it is the custom to marry girls before they are 13.
Fawziya’s parents are heartbroken, but have no recourse.
“There are no laws saying that this is a crime,” Mr. al-Quareshi said.
In February, a bill that would set a minimum marriage age was put to a vote in parliament. It passed 17 to 13, according to Fouad Dahabahi, a legislator. But before the president could sign it, it was blocked. A prominent sheik and several other Muslim religious leaders had objected, saying it contradicted Islamic law, which allows girls to be married at age 9.
Although most members of parliament disagreed with the sheik privately, according to Mr. Dahabahi they were worried about appearing un-Islamic. They sent the bill to be re-examined by committees on health, the constitution, Islamic law and human rights.
Mr. Dahabahi said he supported the bill because when he was 19, he was married to a 13-year-old girl named Intisar.
Soon after they were married, she became pregnant. She got very sick, and her frail health and misery haunted the family for years. “She was a child when she was a mother,” he said.
The bill, he said, is also delayed because parliament members prefer not to argue publicly about such a controversial issue. And, as in many bodies in the Yemeni government, parliament has trouble getting things done because it is in session only five months a year.
Other lawmakers said they oppose the law because setting a specific age for marriage is an unnecessary bow to Western culture.
“Why do we have follow [Western] traditions?” asked parliament member Mohammad al-Hamzi. “God created the girl, and knows when she is ready.”
Mr. al-Hamzi said that girls who marry before puberty should not, and normally do not, have sex with their husbands. But, he added, “If something bad happens to her, she has the right to go to the judge and ask for a divorce, like Nujood.”
Last year, 10-year-old Nujood Ali went to court alone to seek freedom from an abusive husband. She sued for divorce against her father’s will. She won because a sympathetic judge believed that her husband had raped her.
Nujood’s case made news around the world and inspired parliament to consider a minimum legal age for marriage. But when she tried to register for school, Nujood was initially refused because she had been exposed to sex. The teacher said she could taint the other children, according to Ms. Nasser, who also represented Nujood.
When Nujood heard about Sally’s bid for freedom, she pledged to give her $500 out of royalties from a biography being published about her. That is half the money Sally will need to repay her husband if she is granted a divorce.
Even though the judge believed that Nujood had been raped, she still had to give her ex-husband $200.
To get a divorce, Sally must produce written proof and a witness to the abuse.
A few weeks ago, during an Islamic holiday, Mr. al-Mushahi came to Sally’s family home. The roof of the house is a blue plastic tarp, and household water is lugged inside in dirty yellow jerrycans. Sally said she wanted to stay with her family. Her parents begged her to go back to her husband.
For three days, Sally refused to eat, and threatened to kill herself. Her parents relented, and told Mr. al-Mushahi it was over.
“As I told you before, I tried to convince her, but she doesn’t want you anymore,” Sally’s father, Mubkhoot Ahmed, barked into his cell phone at his son-in-law after he failed to appear in court.
Mr. Ahmed blamed himself for marrying off his daughter too young and for believing that Mr. al-Mushahi would not touch her before she was ready.
Sally said that when she was 11, she knew nothing about marriage, but agreed to the match because she would be lavished with gifts for the first time in her life. Her father supports his wife and five children by selling ground chili powder in the market. Sometimes he makes $2.50 a day. Sometimes he makes nothing.
“I was thinking only about jewelry and clothes,” said Sally, slapping her hands together.
Her father said he was afraid that Mr. al-Mushahi would be embarrassed that Sally abandoned him, and try to take his daughter by force.
In a country with little government control outside the capital, he said he is prepared to protect his family the old-fashioned way.
“I have only weapons to protect myself,” he said.