By Ali Kriegsman

Imagine what it would feel like to be taken out of third grade, shipped far away from your family and classmates, and told you must marry and have sex with a man eight times your age. You are nine-years-old, you protest, but your voice is ignored. You are left folding clothes and washing dishes, with a man sweating over your prepubescent body night after night.

Men in Yemen and Afghanistan shamelessly snatch young girls’ right to childhood when they sell their daughters as brides. These can be girls as young as seven. In said regions, these marriages are monetary transactions – the girl is given a price tag, and she is “sold” to either settle a debt or build financial ties with a neighboring family. The girl’s father usually reaps the monetary prize, pocketing a bride price as his little girl enters a world of manual labor, sexual labor, and imminent pregnancy.[1] These girls often lose their shot at an education, with tasks like laundry and cooking replacing reading and writing. These little girls lose exposure to their former friends and even family because they are, as reporter Snejana Farberov explained in The Daily Mail, “burdened by grownup responsibilities, [and] do not get a chance to interact with their peers or carry on friendships outside the household.”[2] These little girls lose control of their bodies, facing pregnancy before even having their menstrual cycle – causing both physiological and psychological trauma.

In April 2010, Elham Mahdi, a twelve-year-old Yemeni girl, was subject to a “swap marriage,” in which the bride’s brother marries the groom’s sister. This set-up avoids expensive bride prices, as each girl is traded as an exchange. Three days after the wedding, Elham died. She suffered internal bleeding after her first intercourse with her new husband, who is reported to have been over twice her age. The genital trauma and unstoppable blood rush was too much for her pre-teen body. In Afghanistan, 35-year-old Janan tried to murder his then fifteen-year-old wife Jamila for trying to flee amidst years of abuse. The Daily Mail shows photos of Jamila immediately after the incident, veiled in light blue head-to-toe, her left shoulder drenched in blood and marked by deep-set stab wounds.[3] The policewoman who arrested Janan was later shot and killed in 2008 by the Taliban, who sought her out for her stance on gender equality. Regina, a thirteen-year-old Afghani girl, was forced to marry a mentally ill man one year after her mother’s death. In exchange for the sale of his daughter, the father acquired a new wife. Regina then lived under constant physical abuse: “All the family members were beating me, and calling me names,” she told Human Rights Watch. “I was so miserable. My mother-in-law would always say to me, ‘You are worthless—see how little your father cared about you—he married you to my son, and he is like this, he is mentally ill.’”[4] Regina has subsequently fled to a shelter, only to find herself bombarded with government orders and court demands to return home.

To determine why this happens, we must not be too quick to jump to religious conclusions or paint Islam as the caricatured antagonist to proper child development. To start, child marriages were a part of Arabian custom pre-Islam. In Arabia’s 7th century pagan society, women were treated as male possessions and married off as children. The Quran – the revealed word of God and Islam’s foundational text – actually lent Arabian women more property, inheritance and marital rights than they had prior to Muhammad’s divine decree. In the Hadith, a compilation of Islamic Law based on the sayings and behavior of Muhammad, a woman cannot be forced to marry without her consent. Dr. Jamal Badawi of the Institute Al Islam discusses a report by Ibn Abbas (a cousin of Muhammad) in which a girl came to the prophet and reported that her father had forced her to marry without her consent. Muhammad gave her the choice to remain in the marriage or not. Yet, Muhammad’s choice to marry an alleged nine-year-old girl, Aisha, detailed in the Hadith, has allowed the Arabian custom of child brides to persist. While these pieces of the puzzle seem ill matched and inconsistent, it seems Muhammad’s example has had more influence on child marriage than Ibn Abbas’ report.

In Afghanistan, well over fifty percent of all marriages are forced or involve girls under sixteen-years-old.[5] In Yemen, thirty-eight percent of girls are married off between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, while fourteen percent become child brides before turning fifteen.[6] In 2010, a Saudi Arabian government official married a twelve-year-old-girl.[7] Not enough people know about this repulsive assault on human rights, and so these girls have been ignored. No one is fighting for them, no one is speaking up to say that every girl deserves a right to childhood and to grow up at her own pace.


Ali is a senior in the UPenn College of Arts and Sciences. She is majoring in Modern Middle Eastern Studies. She hopes to someday work for the government as an analyst and reform development attempts in the Middle East.

[1] “The Terrifying World of Child Brides.” The Daily Mail. 11 Oct 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Forced and Child Marriage.” Human Rights Watch. 6 Dec 2009

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Yemen’s Child Marriages.” Loonwatch. 02 April 2012.

[7] “Child Marriage Reignites Debate in Saudi Arabia” The National. 11 Oct 2012.

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