Rawan, Fauzia and Elham never imagined that on their wedding day their gifts would be the end of their lives, or that their husbands were not angels of mercy, but angels of death.
Marriage for them was only a chance to get a new dress, jewelry, sweets and a party for all their friends. What the underage girls did not know was that after the wedding party their childhood would be killed. They would have to leave school, cook and clean all day, have children and, in some cases, lose their lives.
Hardh, the governorate of Hajjah in northwestern Yemen, has become the site of a new victim of early marriage. Rawan, a child of eight, lost her life on the second day of her marriage to a man over thirty years her senior. She died of internal injuries incurred on the first night of her marriage.
Fauzia Abdullah Yusuf is another victim of the early marriage. Fauzia, a Yemeni girl of 12 who married a farmer over twice her age, died on September 11 2009 in Hodeida; she died from difficulties during childbirth. After 3 days of a painful, toilsome labor, Fauzi passed away. The child did not survive the labor either.
Nejwed and Basma were luckier than Rawan and Fauzia because they were able escape their marriages and secure divorces from their husbands. Nejwed, 11, is considered the youngest divorcee in Yemen. Her husband, 30, forced her to leave her school and beat her whenever she refused to obey him. Continued suffering in her husband’s house gave her the courage to escape her marital home. She took a taxi to a courthouse where she described the conditions in which her husband forced her to live: she was divorced one year later.
The most painful story, however, is that of Basma, a child of seven who was in her first year of school when her father decided to give her as a gift to the son of his father-in-law. No one outside her immediate family was aware of the criminal act, and it was not until Basma’s aunt visited Basma’s family home and did not see the girl that the crime came to light. After a number of calls made by Basma’s aunt, the pair succeeded in securing her divorce.
According to the Gender Studies Center at Sana’a University, 65% percent of females are married “underage,” compared while that number rises to 70% in rural areas. By comparison, only 7% of men are married before they turn 18.
Earlier in 2012, official reports said that there are 8 deaths per day in Yemen because of early marriage and early pregnancy in the absence of the appropriate medical facilities and procedures.
According to a report issued by the International Center for Studies in 2012, Yemen has ranked 13th among 20 countries classified as the worst in the early marriage, where the percentage of girls who marry under the age of eighteen is 48.4 %.
In the last few years, Yemen has witnessed a sensation on the legislative side of the issue through legislation aiming to fix a minimum age of marriage. Human rights organizations, along with many activists in the field, have called for the adoption of a law setting the minimum marriage age for men and women at 18.
This demand has been strongly opposed by religious factions, some parliamentarians, and tribal groups, whose joint opposition managed to defeat the resolution in 2009. The law did not receive the support of President Saleh after vocal demonstrations organized by these opposition groups.
Yemen’s Personal Status Law of 1994 sets the minimum age of marriage at 15 years, but official sources state that amendments to the Personal Status Law have rendered Yemeni legislation unclear on this point. The current law establishes that only a girl’s trustee has the right to decide whether she is physically and psychologically ready for marriage, which greatly weakens the government’s ability to administer this issue.
Rawan’s death has returned early marriage to both Yemen’s political forum and the international spotlight. Members of the National Dialogue Conference recently organized a vigil in protest of the marriage of underage girls.
Arwa Othman, an activist and member of the Dialogue, said that the Yemeni government must decide an age for girls’ marriage and banish anyone who goes against it. “Yemeni authorities have to move and take action against Rawan’s husband or her family,” she said.
Othman also explained that the Islah and Salafi parties are those most responsible for exacerbating the phenomenon of underage marriage in Yemen.
Amal al-Basha, NDC member is widely considered the first Yemeni to call for a law determining the age of marriage. Al-Basha said that the aim of marriage is building a family, but what is happening in Yemen does not fit this definition. This is not marriage, she says; it is a violation of childhood.
“I do not understand why families insist on marrying girls at young ages? The only beneficiaries from that are the fathers, and the officials should criminalize early marriage,” she added.
High Representative for Foreign Affairs in the European Union Catherine Ashton urged Yemeni authorities to investigate the case of Rawan without delay, and to hold a trial all those who participated in her marriage.
Ashton also called on the Yemeni government to fulfill its commitments in accordance with international law, including the United Nations treaties on the protection of the children rights, of which Yemen is a member. She also called on the government to develop national legislation to determine the minimum age for marriage in line with the norms of international law, which prohibits the exploitation of children.
Early marriage has killed girls all across Yemen. Even if they didn’t die physically, young female victims of early marriage die psychologically when she is deprived of her childhood and child rights. Huda, a teacher in Hajja province, said that it hurts her when girls drop out of school to marry. “I try to explain to the girls and their parents the damages of this phenomenon, and I am always shocked by their total refusal to listen.”
Dr. Zianb al-Kazzan, an obstetrician, said that most of girls who marry during childhood experience severe bleeding on the first day of their marriage. Also, her small body size is unprepared for pregnancy, which may lead to fatal risk for her or her children.
Early marriage can also cause severe psychological problems. Dr. Ebtsam Zaid, a psychologist, said that the girl who marry underage often suffer from depression and anxiety. Underage brides are also prone to increased mental and psychological pressure due to their inability to deal with the complex issues of marital relations and motherhood.
Recently, a group of activists organized a national campaign against underage marriage under the name “To Save Wardah.” The “wardah,” or “flower,” is a symbol of all young girls driven to marriage before they turn 18, like a rose picked prematurely.