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Yemen Islamists Fight Law Banning Child Marriage

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SAN'A, Yemen — She was 2 years old when her father promised her in marriage to a man in his 30s. It was a swap, so the father could marry the man's sister without paying the obligatory bride-price.

At age 9, the girl was put on a sack of rice to appear taller next to the bridegroom in the wedding picture. At 11, she was taken to her husband's house to live. Despite promising not to consummate the marriage before she reached puberty, he tied her to a bed, stuffed a rag in her mouth and raped her, she says.

"One day he tied me up and attacked me," the girl, who is now 13 and has fled her husband, told The Associated Press on Wednesday, choking with tears during an interview at an orphanage that has given her shelter. Her name and her husband's aren't being used to protect her identity.

Child marriages are widespread in Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, where tribal customs dominate society. More than a quarter of its females marry before age 15, according to a recent report by the Social Affairs Ministry.

The issue of child brides vaulted into the headlines here two years ago when an 8-year-old 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, and legislators began looking at ways to curb the practice.

In February, parliament passed a law setting the minimum marriage age at 17. But some lawmakers are trying to kill the measure, calling it un-Islamic. Before it could be ratified by Yemen's president, they forced it to be sent back to parliament's constitutional committee for review.

Child marriage is an issue elsewhere. In neighboring, more affluent Saudi Arabia, several cases of child brides have been reported in the past year, though the phenomenon is not believed to be nearly as widespread as in Yemen.

The U.S. on Wednesday sharply criticized the practice after a ruling by a Saudi judge upheld the marriage of a girl whose father gave her at age 8 to a man in his late 40s. The girl's mother has sought a divorce for her daughter.

"Child marriage is a clear and unacceptable violation of human rights in our view. U.S. officials at all levels frequently raise with the Saudi government our human rights concerns, especially those dealing with children and marriages," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.

Saudi Arabia sets no minimum age for marriage. But the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan this week quoted the kingdom's new justice minister, Mohammed al-Issa, as saying the government is doing a comprehensive study on underage marriage that will include regulations. He did not indicate how long the process would take.

In Yemen, poverty is the main reason families marry off young daughters, to get bride-prices up to several hundred dollars. Local traditions encourage the practice out of a belief a young bride can be shaped into an obedient wife, bear more children and be kept away from temptation.

The weak government relies on support from tribal leaders and Islamists so is reluctant to take action on customs they support.

Yemen once set 15 as the minimum marriage age, but parliament eliminated it in the 1990s, saying parents should decide when a daughter marries.

Legislator Sheik Mohammed al-Hazmi, one of the most ardent opponents of a minimum marriage age, says the new law is a "Western plot aimed at Westernizing our culture."

"The West wants to teach us how to marry, conceive and divorce. This is cultural colonization that we reject," he told AP.

Al-Hazmi said Islam permits the practice because nothing in the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad bans it. "Everything that is not forbidden is permitted," he said.

Lawmaker Sheik Shawki al-Qadhi vehemently disagrees. He said that according to Islamic law "a ruler can ban that which is permitted if it is proven to cause harm."

Regulations short of an outright ban won't work, he said. "Are we going to post a policeman at every bedroom to ensure husbands don't consummate marriages before girls reach puberty?"

Al-Qadhi said he is confident the new law will survive review, though some say the age could be lowered to 15.

The girl who spoke with the AP is now living at the Alrahma Foundation for Human Development, an orphanage in the capital, San'a.

She first came to the orphanage when her father died, when she was 11. She had not yet moved in with her husband, because the agreement had been that she would do so at puberty.

But she said her brother showed up at the orphanage and persuaded her to go with him, telling her they would seek a court annulment of the marriage. Instead, he took her to her husband's house in the southern town of Thammar for a bribe of about $200, the girl said. About nine months later, the husband forced her into sex, she said.

She got a chance to break away when she developed stomach and vocal cord problems last year and her husband sent her to San'a for treatment. She escaped from the house where she was staying and fled to the orphanage 10 months ago.

Today, at 13, she is learning to read and write and beginning to think about the future.

"I want to become a businesswoman," she said, two tiny dimples lighting up her thin face.

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