CAIRO -- A leading international rights group on Thursday urged authorities in Yemen to set 18 as the minimum age for marriage to improve girls' opportunities for education and protect their human rights.
Human Rights Watch said widespread child marriage in the Arab world's poorest country jeopardizes Yemeni girls' health and keeps them second-class citizens.
A report by the New York-based group said Yemeni government and U.N. data showed that in some rural areas of Yemen, girls as young as eight were married off. Some have told HRW they were subjected to marital rape and domestic abuse.
HRW researcher Nadya Khalife said a ban on child marriage should be a priority for reform despite Yemen's ongoing turmoil that has relegated such issues to "the bottom of the political priority list."
The 54-page report was based on field research conducted in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, between August and September 2010, and interviews with more than 30 girls and women who were married off as children, as well as on interviews with members of non-governmental organizations and officials at the ministries of health and education.
According to the report, approximately 14 percent of girls in Yemen are married before the age 15, and 52 percent are married before they are 18 years old.
Yemen has been wrecked by months of political turmoil, a deadly regime crackdown on opposition protests and an upsurge in attacks by al-Qaida militants. The country's popular uprising, inspired by other Arab Spring revolts, has seen almost daily protests against longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Yemeni authorities on Wednesday announced the formation of a national unity government as part of a Gulf-brokered power transfer deal to ease embattled Saleh out of office and end the country's crisis. The new government is to be sworn in on Saturday.
HRW urged Yemen's next government to take legal steps to set the minimum age for marriage at 18 and promote public awareness of the harm of child marriages.
"Now is the time to move on this issue ... to ensure that girls and women who played a major role in Yemen's protest movement will also contribute to shaping Yemen's future," said Khalife, the HRW researcher.
The issue of Yemen's child brides received widespread attention four years ago, when an 8-year-old girl boldly went by herself to a courtroom and demanded a judge dissolve her marriage to a man in his 30s. She eventually won a divorce.
A February 2009 law set Yemen's minimum age for marriage at 17, but it was repealed after some lawmakers called it un-Islamic and sent back to parliament's constitutional committee for a review. The review has since been stalled by a group of lawmakers contending that enforcing a minimum age would be contrary to Islamic law.
Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, who won this year's Nobel Peace Prize for her work in advancing women's rights, has also highlighted the issue.
In a 2010 opinion piece, Karman wrote that there "is a vast space in our Islamic Law heritage for reaching consensus on adopting the age of 18 as a minimum age for marriage."