Human Rights Watch is urging Yemen to set 18 as the minimum age for marriage to improve girls' opportunities for education and protect their human rights.

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A Yemeni woman hold a picture of a child bride during a rally near the parliament in Sanaa in March 2010 to show support for proposed legislation banning the marriage of girls under 17. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

There is no legal minimum age for girls to marry in Yemen. Many girls are forced into marriage, and some are as young as eight, says the report released Thursday titled "How Come You Allow Little Girls to Get Married?": Child Marriage in Yemen.

Yemeni government and United Nations data show that approximately 14 per cent of girls in Yemen are married before age 15, and 52 per cent are married before age 18.

Yemeni girls and women told the rights group about being forced into child marriages by their families, and then having no control over their lives or the decision to bear children.

Early marriages cut short the education of girls, and some said they had been subjected to marital rape and abuse.

"Yemen’s political crisis has left issues such as child marriage at the bottom of the political priority list," said Nadya Khalife, women’s rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. "But now is the time to move on this issue, setting the minimum age for marriage at 18, to ensure that girls and women who played a major role in Yemen’s protest movement will also contribute to shaping Yemen’s future."

Demonstrators in Yemen have called for a range of reforms in recent months, including measures to guarantee equality between women and men. Banning child marriage should be a priority for reform, Human Rights Watch said.

"Girls should not be forced to be wives and mothers," Khalife said. "As Yemen undergoes political change, leaders should seize the opportunity to correct an injustice that does enormous harm and set the country on a new course of social justice, including equality for women and girls."

The issue of Yemen's child brides received widespread attention four years ago, when an eight-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A February 2009 law set Yemen's minimum age for marriage at 17, but it was repealed after some legislators called it un-Islamic and sent back to parliament's constitutional committee for a review.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 legislators contending that enforcing a minimum age would be contrary to Islamic law.

With files from The Associated Press