The Health of a Young Family

Child Marriages III: The Health of a Young Family

By Sama’a Al-Hamdani
Aug 20, 2005 - Vol. VIII Issue 33
This article is one in a series of investigations into the problems of early marriages in Yemen.

Early marriage has affects on the general health of society. According to Islam and Yemeni culture, marriage is the only thing that legitimizes sexual intercourse. That being said, the marriage of a child has a dramatic effect on the health of the pregnant teenager and the new-born child, in turn, poses a threat to society in various ways.

Many people believe that a girl who has reached menstruation is a woman, regardless of her age, mental maturity, or level of education. The Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) says that a woman should have reached the age of 18 in order to be ready for marriage. It is stated that childhood is a process and time of growth that doesn’t end with any obvious sign of physical maturity. Many people do not consider that girls may be affected physically and emotionally due to their early marriage.

Tradition has it that a girl must engage in sexual intercourse with her husband and prove her virginity on the wedding night. The girl is to do that either voluntarily or by force. Forced marital relations usually result in side effects in which the girl ends up with broken bones, bruises, cuts, broken vaginal tissues and other injuries from violent acts. A young girl may bleed uncontrollably because her body was not fit enough to be with a man. Many girls give birth without receiving medical care and suffer from medical complications such as malnutrition, risk of abortion, premature delivery, risk of injury to the womb because of an immature pelvis and genital channels. 47% of all births in Yemen witness unwanted accompanying side effects. The country suffers from high anemia rates due to malnutrition, with 57.1% of pregnant women in Al-Hodeidah and Ibb, for example, suffering from it. Another reason for anemia is repeated unhealthy pregnancies(Oxfam Research, 2003).

When a girl marries at an early age, she generally produces a higher rate of child bearing and more total births, where the average family has 7.2 members. Yemen’s fertility rates, or average number of live births per woman during her reproductive years, are the third highest in the world. Around a half of Yemen’s population consists of children between the ages of 1 month to 14 years of age. Yemen suffers from high maternal mortality rates due to early marriage, and has 351 maternal deaths per 100,000 births. Yemen is considered to have one of the highest rates in the region with 5000 maternal deaths per year because of early marriage (Khalil “Early Marriages” 9).

A mother may suffer emotionally from early marriage where a girl may feel embarrassed, guilty and worthless. Fatimah, married at nine years of age, threatened to poison herself due to her suffering in the marriage. She expresses digust towards men and fears their presence. Young wives have problems with fear, depression, anger, trust and sleeping. These health problems are not restricted to young mothers, but also to their children.

Due to the young mothers’ low weight during pregnancy, many infants are born underweight. Underweight babies, or premature babies, show many birth defects and disorders. They are more likely to have underdeveloped body organs, respiratory distress syndrome, intestinal problems and bleeding  the brain. A premature infant may have abnormal features that do not resemble other normal infants. Their skin is transparent, thin and shiny. A premature female infant would have an enlarged clitoris and a premature male an undersize scrotum. They can also suffer from an undeveloped central nervous system, feeding intolerance and kidney immaturity.

Infants of adolescent mothers can suffer abuse and neglect because teenage mothers statistically give their children less parental care, and their children are less likely to receive proper nutrition and cognitive and social encouragement. 13% of boys born to teenage mothers are more likely to be imprisoned. 37% of all births have a maximum of 24 months’ interval between each birth, while 18% are separated by less than 18 months. If a mother is under the age of 18, then her baby’s chance of dying in the first year of life is 60% higher than that of a baby born of a mother older than 19. Infant mortality is inevitably high - 94.8 deaths per 1000 children (Khalil, Najat. "Early Marriage in the Yemeni Society").

In one case study, Fatimah*, married at nine, was promised that her husband would not have sexual relations with her until she began to menstruate. On her wedding night, she was locked in a bedroom with her husband who forced himself on her. Over the following couple of days, Fatimah tried to escape, but to no avail. She was captive in her husband’s house.

Forcibly locked in a bedroom with her spouse, Fatimah hated her husband and was scared of him. She used to hide in the kitchen’s Tanoor, or traditional oven, so she would not be forced into martial relations. She managed to convince her husband’s family to take her to her father’s house in the morning, only to find herself forced back into her husband’s house at night. When Fatimah refused to sleep with her husband, she would be beaten. Emotionally, mentally, and physically overcome, she tried everything to leave her husband, or make him want to leave her. In an attempt to repel her husband, she shaved her long black hair, but all she received was a good beating. Having resorted to threatening to poisen herself, Fatimah finally got the divorce she wanted at the age of 15. To this day, she lacks any sympathetic feelings towards men, causing her social relations to be limited and instable.

Early marriage causes society to loose a large number of women who could otherwise participate in the positive development of the country. Those female victims will not be able to raise a family in a healthy atmosphere. Many of the mothers and infants suffer from illnesses and traumas that will not fade away easily. Health effects such as these, both mental and physical, prevent females from taking up positions of employment and thereby improving their own lives, and the lives of the those around them.

*Names have been changed for the safety of the speakers.

Copyright (c) 2004 - 2005
Yemen Observer Newspaper