Nujood Ali made world headlines in 2008 when she was granted a divorce in Yemen at the age of 10. She had been married a year to a man who beat and raped her. So she decided to go to a courthouse and speak to a judge. Her case prompted other children to protest forced marriage.
Yemen is certainly not alone in allowing children under 18 to marry without their consent. According to UNICEF, the U.N. Children's Fund, several countries in sub-Sahara Africa and in South Asia, including India, have high rates in girls marrying before the age of 18.
But Yemen is one of the few countries in the Middle East without laws restricting child marriage and women, despite the turmoil in the country, have fought this practice. One of them is Tawakkol Karman, a co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. She is a journalist, a women's rights activist -- and associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Slavery and Rape
Human Rights Watch, in a 54-page report, urges Yemen to set a minimum marriage age of 18, particularly now that the country may emerge from turmoil and has a power-sharing government. The upheavals have left little time for a discussion of marriage and abuse, tantamount to slavery and rape.
A 2006 field study revealed that child marriage among Yemeni girls under 18 reached 52.1%, compared to 6.7% among males. A shocking 14 percent of the girls were married before the age of 15, particularly in poor rural areas, HRW said.
The Yemeni Supreme Council for Women's Affairs attempted to introduce a bill to setting an age for marriage at 18, and then lowered it to 17. But the Sharia legislative committee in parliament rejected such a proposal every year, saying it was un-Islamic to set a minimum age for marriage and prevented it from being debated.
Child marriage, which usually results in immediate pregnancy, stunts the growth of girls, few of them ever returning to school. The U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) says they are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20 to 24, adding that the "vast majority of deaths take place within marriage." (Boys are seldom forced into marriage).
Most adolescents become pregnant before their bodies are mature enough to safely deliver a child. When they die, the result is often orphan children who roam the streets.
Reem: beaten and raped into marriage
Reem, aged 14 from Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, was 11 when her father married her to a cousin, 21 years her senior, Human Rights Watch reported. Against Reem's will, a quick religious marriage ensued. Three days after she was married, her husband raped her. Reem attempted suicide by cutting her wrists with a razor. Her husband took her back to her father in Sanaa, and Reem then ran away to her mother (her parents are divorced). Reem's mother escorted her to court in an attempt to get a divorce.
The judge told her, "We don't divorce little girls." Reem replied, "But how come you allow little girls to get married?
So will it ever change? Barbara Crossette, a former New York Times correspondent, was hired as a researcher for UNFPA. In traveling to various nations she said men and boys have to be part of the solution, particularly in areas where there is little recourse to law. Community organizers from the same nationality have do the explaining about family planning. "We have to get away from macro thinking," she said.
Asked about child brides, Jamal Benomar, the U.N. representative for Yemen, said the good news was that the country had "a very lively civil society, including very active women's groups" who had been able to organize over the last few months.
The bad news, said Benomar, (who has been involved in elections and human rights since he was tortured and jailed in his native Morocco from 1975 to 1983) was that five or six of Yemen's 18 provinces were run by insurgents, government opponents or Al-Qaeda. Few rights for women in these areas.
The statistics for maternal mortality have improved by 34 percent. That means a woman is no longer dying every minute, but one woman is still dying every minute and a half. No doubt one-stop shopping for prenatal care, malnutrition, access to a hospital and skilled practitioners and professionals could prevent many deaths. As could education for girls.
But the squeamishness of talking about family planning or contraception -- in short sex -- is a no-no in many nations. An estimated 215 million women in the developing world want to delay or avoid pregnancy but have no access to contraception or fear the side effects or their families object, says UNFPA.
But funds for family planning whether private groups or U.N. agencies, have receded in recent years even for those women who want access. Abstinence as a policy rather than a goal is a joke when sex is forced.