In Yemen, Battling To Ban The Forced Marriage Of Girls

Because of outdated tradition and economics, 14% of Yemeni girls are married off before their 15th birthday. But since the Arab spring, a movement is growing to stop this.

A young girl in Taiz, Yemen
A young girl in Taiz, Yemen
François-Xavier Trégan

SANAA — “Eighteen years old! Eighteen years old!”

This is what the members of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference shout as they run up and down the hallway in celebration. Their conference has just approved an initiative to make the legal age for marriage 18.

“This recommendation will become law, and then it will be one of the most important in our history because it’ll save our children’s lives,” declares committee president Rawa Othman.

An estimated 14% of Yemeni girls are married by force before their 15th birthdays — often sold by their poor families for cash — and 52% of girls here are married before they turn 18. So it’s no wonder that news of the vote was taken as a sort of cultural revolution.

“The will to live free has won today against the fear that some want to force on us in the name of Allah and religion,” says Othman, who is nevetheless only cautiously optimistic that it will survive the final session of the conference.

Given Yemen’s history, a sense of caution is appropriate. In 2009, a similar project aimed to make 17 the minimum marriage age, but its final version was never ratified. Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour remembers the sideline political arrangements between Islamists and the party of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh to bury the project.

Four years later, the minister is starting the fight once again. “The Arab Spring has changed a lot of things,” Mashhour says. “We’re now trying to establish the foundations of a rule of law. It might take several years, but at least we’re trying. The Prime Minister pledged to legislate the issue of early marriages. But let’s be realistic: Even if a law was approved, it would be difficult to apply it. Customs and traditions are important factors, of course, but the main reason behind it remains poverty.”

A cycle driven by poverty

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arabian peninsula, and also one of the poorest in the world. Almost 47% of the population live on fewer than $2 a day. It has the world’s third highest rate of malnutrition, and half of its inhabitants are hit by food insecurity.

The map of early marriages fits that of poverty. Abdullah Raimi comes from Raymah, in the Western mountains. Like many others, he left the misery of his village to try his luck in the capital city of Sanaa. He collects plastic and metal cans and sells them by the kilo. He lives with his wife, two daughters and two sons in a couple of square meters in the north of the city. It is a windowless unsanitary slum made out of concrete blocks and sheet metal.

“I had my daughter married when she was 12,” he explains. “I asked her future husband for 600,000 rials ($3,000). He accepted. I married her off for the money. That sum represented a lot and was supposed to help us.”

A year later, after her husband turned violent on her, his daughter Amina was granted a divorce. She is now 17. “I didn't want to get married, but I had to, for the money,” she says. “The only thing I wanted was to finish school, go to university. I wasn’t so lucky. I'm a victim. But I believe I’m now more able to control my own life. If I had a daughter, I’d keep her close and I’d wait for her to finish her studies before marrying her off.”

Ahmed Al Kuraishi, director of the child advocacy group Seyaj, says early marriage often means early divorce. “In Yemen, popular culture encourages early marriages,” he says. “Traditions are an integral part of religion, but the low level of education is one of the main causes.”

The association’s 400 volunteers cover the most remote rural areas, which are also the worst hit. They go from school to school and from house to house to hand out comic books aimed at raising awareness and preventing early marriages. They’ve already distributed 8,500 books. The organization also trained 100 people in writing marriage contracts and verifying the genuine consent of the bride, in strict accordance with Yemen’s civil code. After that, they created a guide to help lawyers defend young victims in court.

Now Seyaj is trying to fight rich men from the Gulf who come to Yemen to wed young girls for a few thousand dollars. “Our reputation is good and parents fear us now,” Ahmed Al Kuraishi says. “Some fear that we might put our nose in their business and halt marriage procedures. Other times, we intervene to stop ceremonies as they happen. Citizens, often from villages, don’t hesitate to give the police a heads-up, and young children come to us for shelter. Ever since the Nojoud affair, we have been seeing real change.”

The girl who grew a movement

Yemeni women have grown more confident, and the story of Nojoud Ali is an important reason why. In 2008, the world discovered the smiling face of a slender 10-year-old child. Nojoud’s family married her off by force. Under the protection of a judge, she obtained a resounding divorce.

“My trial certainly marks the beginning of the fight against early marriages,” she says. “Girls have heard my story and started to talk. Three of them have met me to tell me: "You are our spokesperson. We liberated ourselves thanks to you."”

Nojoud is now 15 years old and still wants to become a lawyer to defend children. “One day, a girl told me her story. Her father, who was very poor, wanted to marry her off to get money. I talked to him and tried to convince him to delay the marriage for seven years. I told him: "My father also tried to force me into marrying some man. Your daughter will be a victim, maybe you’ll even lose her. Such a marital life is impossible. You must be wise."” That day, he was wise. He was able to keep the money and delay the wedding.

“The problem is not in the legislation but in the minds,” says Najeeb Ghanem, an Islamist parliament member and former health minister. “We must first of all educate the people. Then we will be able to solve the main social problems in the rural areas, like illiteracy. All those who come from abroad talk about rules but never about the problems that exist here. We must fight against poverty, against unemployment. The economy is my first, second and third priority.”

The National Dialogue Conference will soon examine the recommendations of its work groups, including establishing the legal age for marriage at 18. Although she was ready and willing, Nojoud Ali was not invited to speak at the lecture, as these committees are trying to define a “New Yemen.”

“I imagined myself speaking in front of all these representatives,” she says. “I simply wanted to tell them, "We, the children, must be able to study and play. To live through our childhood."”

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!


What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]


Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli


• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.


“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.


Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA

London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.


Dottoré! is a weekly column on by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."


• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days

Keep reading... Show less
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