Freedom for the child brides of Yemen

To fight child marriage, a cultural war must be waged against old practices and attitudes deeply rooted in the poorest country of the Arabian Peninsula.

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National

The Sana'a courthouse was packed. Before dozens of radio and television microphones, a little girl held her breath. "You are divorced," announced the judge. That March morning, just a month ago, Sally al Sahabi smiled for the first time in months. At 12, she was finally granted her freedom from a man of 26, whom she was forced to marry two years earlier.

"It's a new little victory in our fight against child marriage," Shada Nasser, her lawyer, said over the phone on that bright day. "But we still have a long way to go." Indeed, recent terrible cases have proved that many tiny voices remain unheard. To fight child marriage, not only must new laws be implemented, but a cultural war must be waged against old practices and attitudes deeply rooted in the poorest country of the Arabian Peninsula.

For some girls, it is literally a question of life and death. In early April, Elham al Assi, 13, died in a small village of Yemen's Hajja province after being sexually assaulted by her adult husband. Last year, another girl from the same province, 12, died of haemorrhaging as she was giving birth to a baby. These are not isolated cases. According to a 2009 report by the country's ministry of social affairs, a quarter of all females in Yemen marry before the age of 15. And an average of eight women die in Yemen each day due to child marriage, says the Arabic Sister forum.

When I met Shada Nasser in Sana'a, two years ago, she had just achieved her first and incredible success by raising attention of the case of Nujood Ali, the now-famous child bride who was married before she was 10 years old to a man three times her age. She had escaped to the court after being raped and beaten by her husband. Thanks to a coalition of goodwill gathered by Shada that included local civil society groups and media outlets, Nujood became the first young divorcee of Yemen.

The impact was unprecedented. Emboldened by Nujood's victory, other child brides started speaking out against their husbands. Last year, two other girls, Arwa, aged nine, and Reem, 12, succeeded in breaking their bonds of child matrimony. Sally, 12, is now the fourth young divorcee of Yemen. "Nujood has shattered a taboo," said Husnia al Khadri, the director of women affairs at the University of Sana'a.

Somehow, the news of her divorce has brought an end to the silence enshrouding a practice widespread in many countries - Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, a year after Nujood's victory, an eight-year-old girl who was secretly married off by her father to a man in his 50s successfully sued for divorce. Today, tragedies such as Elham's are driving the struggle to implement a new marriage law that has been languishing in parliamentary committees for more than a year now and is expected to be voted on again by the end of the month. The law offers to raise the marriage age to 17 - instead of 15 - and imposes a financial penalty on parents who do not respect it.

Activists insist that a new law would discourage parents from being tempted to "sell" their daughters; in many cases, the dowry offered by the husband is the reason the father marries off his child. "I am a poor man, with no job and 16 kids to feed," Nujood's father once told me, justifying his daughter's marriage. "What do you expect from me?" Indeed, Sally's divorce took so long in part because her parents had to find the money to pay back the husband's dowry. In the four child divorce cases, not only were the husbands not punished for abusing their young wives, but also they were given their money back.

But changing the law is not enough. In a country weighed down by centuries of tribal and village traditions, education and awareness campaigns must also be a priority. "To guarantee a happy marriage, marry a nine-year-old girl," goes a tribal proverb, widespread in Yemeni villages. Because premarital sex is forbidden, parents also say they marry their daughters off at an early age to prevent them from committing a sin and dishonouring the family.

Changing laws will have little impact on village life, where wedding contracts are signed as a direct pact between two families, with no judge, tribal sheikh or cleric involved. The husband usually promises that he will not touch the girl before she reaches puberty. But he rarely keeps his vow. In the case of Elham, the marriage was a "sighar" - or marriage exchange - between two sisters and two brothers. According to local media, Elham's husband was in a hurry to have sex with her to prove that he, too, like his brother-in-law, was capable of consummating his marriage.

Interpretations of Islamic scriptures also play a role that transcend or even supplant the law. Hardline clerics accuse those advocating an abolition of child marriage of being western dupes. Some of them repeatedly refer to the Prophet Mohammed, who, according to traditional accounts, married one of his wives, Aisha, when she was only nine. Relief groups such as Oxfam have been doing tremendous fieldwork in villages. Instead of discussing the "legal age" for marriage, they prefer to talk about a "safe age", emphasising the risks linked to a child marriage: psychological trauma, dropping out of school, death in childbirth or during sexual intercourse.

These groups say they need more help. And perhaps that's where the resources of governments and charities can best be allocated. More than anything, women need basic education and women's health advice. In Yemen, almost 70 per cent of women are illiterate and each family has an average of six children, according to the World Health Organisation. Legal victories such as Sally's or Nujood's are inspiring tales. But local activists worry that even those who escape child marriage remain vulnerable. Girls running away from marriages or sexual abuse lack shelters or family support centres to provide psychological help and schooling. Often, after getting divorced, the girls are forced to go back and live with their parents, risking revenge from their husband's relatives or their own uncles.

"The issue of rehabilitating for previous victims is yet to receive the attention it deserves," says Nadia al Sakkaf, the editor of the Yemen Times. While royalties from the book Nujood and I co-wrote have helped her go back to school, move to a new house with her family and save money for possible higher education, other divorcees remain isolated and forgotten. In Reem's neighbourhood, some people whisper behind her back and glare at her when she goes out. Arwa is still living in her village, Jibla, and sometimes misses school because she receives little supervision. And Sally's family does not have enough money to pay for the treatments she needs to recover from her trauma.

"I feel free," she told Shada. "But I wish I could go back to a normal life, like any other girl." Delphine Minoui, a Middle East correspondent for the French daily newspaper Le Figaro, is the co-author of I Am Nujood, 10, And Divorced, published in January by Three Rivers Press. She lives in Beirut