You may have heard about Rawan, whose name appeared in news after the eight-year-old Yemeni girl reportedly died in September from reproductive tract injuries sustained on her wedding night. Rawan's father had married her off to a 40-year-old man who raped her, causing fatal injury, the news reports said, and the Yemeni Minister of Human Rights demanded an investigation.
Local officials in Yemen said the story wasn't true. They held a press conference to present a little girl they introduced as Rawan and a man they said was her father. The officials insisted that Rawan was safe and very much alive -- though the story did not match accounts of some journalists, and locals including health workers who had said she had died.
We may never know what happened to Rawan. But her story shows how much is at stake in the debate surrounding child marriage, a deep-rooted, widespread, and ongoing practice in Yemen. Data from a 2006 survey by the Yemeni government and the United Nations shows that approximately 14 percent of girls in Yemen were married before age 15, and more than half -- 52 percent -- were married before age 18.
Yemen has no law establishing a minimum age for marriage. In 1999, legislators removed the minimum marriage age of 15 for both boys and girls, and the only protection the law now provides is to prohibit a husband from having sexual intercourse with his bride "until she has reached puberty, even if she exceeds 15 years of age." Yet there is no penalty for men who violate the prohibition on sexual intercourse with a pre-pubescent wife, and marital rape is not a crime in Yemen. Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which men raped their wives before the girls' first menstrual period.
In 2009, a majority in parliament voted to set 17 as the minimum age for marriage. But a group of lawmakers -- contending that reinstating a minimum age would be contrary to Sharia, or Islamic law -- used a parliamentary procedure to prevent the law from going into effect. The law that could help protect girls has remained stuck in Parliament since.
Child marriage makes headlines when a young girl dies after her wedding night. Yet we rarely hear the stories of thousands of other girls who marry as children and live to suffer the consequences. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report documented severe and lasting harm to Yemeni girls forced to marry as children, in some cases as young as eight.
Yemen's rates of maternal and infant mortality are among the highest in the Middle East. Studies show that girls in their teens are twice as likely to die from pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes. Girls between the ages of 10 and 14 are five times more likely to die during delivery than mothers who are between 20 and 24. With little education, young girls are often incapable of providing adequate nutrition for themselves and their children. Stillbirths and infant deaths are 50 percent higher when women and girls under age 20 carry the pregnancy.
Most girls who marry young leave school and lack both education and other skills they need as adults to provide for themselves and their families. Many of the girls and women who spoke to Human Rights Watch about their early marriage could not read or write.
Many girls and women in Yemen are subject to gender-based violence, including domestic and sexual abuse. The World Health Organization has found that girls who marry before the age of 18 have a greater risk of becoming victims of intimate partner violence than those who marry at an older age. Some of the girls and women Human Rights Watch interviewed said their husbands or in-laws physically abused them. When they fled, their families often told them to return, and in some cases their own families beat them too.
Yemen is currently engaged in a process called the "National Dialogue," which brings together various segments of Yemeni society to set a direction for the country's future, including creating the building blocks for a new constitution.
When I was in Yemen this month, the National Dialogue's Working Group on Rights and Freedoms passed a recommendation that the minimum marriage age should be 18. This is an excellent proposal, but it still needs backing from other members of the National Dialogue. Yemeni officials need to pass a law that sets the age of marriage at 18, and punishes adults who are complicit in arranging marriages before that age. Far more must be done to change attitudes and prevent such marriages.
As the world celebrates the International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, countless girls in Yemen remain at risk.
We may not ever find out the truth of Rawan's life, but the fact is there are countless Rawans out there, and the time is now to reduce their risk of child marriage.
Rothna Begum, Women's rights researcher on the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch