Yemen: Child forced into marriage dies

Credit: Mohammed al Qadhi / The National

Mohammed al Qadhi, Foreign Correspondent

SANA’A // Elham Mahdi al Assi, a 13-year-old girl, died from severe haemorrhaging and the rupturing of internal organs as a result of sexual intercourse, just five days after she was married.

Her death follows a number of high-profile child marriage cases that have shaken Yemen and, activists hope, may go some way towards bringing about a law that would establish a minimum age for marriage.

Elham, who lived in the village of Qalat Hameed in Hajja province, about 130km north of Sana’a, was married on March 29 to a man in his 20s in a traditional arrangement known as a “swap marriage”, in which the brother of the bride married the sister of the groom. She died on April 2, though it is not clear if she was dead before arriving at the hospital.

Her body remains at al Thawra hospital, in the province’s capital.

“Her death is the result of the opposition to the ban on child marriage. She is a victim of childhood being abused in Yemen,” said Majed al Madhaji, the press officer at the non-governmental Arabic Sisters Forum for Human Rights (ASFHR).

Mansur Abu Ali, a Hajja-based activist with ASFHR, said the girl’s family had claimed she was 18, but after speaking to people in her village, including social dignitaries, he was able to confirm she was only about 13.

Local police have arrested the husband and also carried out initial interrogations.

Prosecuters are expected to start their own investigations tomorrow.

Mr al Madhaji said ASFHR had also hired a lawyer in Hajja to look into the matter.

“We have assigned a lawyer to follow up the case as this should become a public opinion case,” said Mr al Madhaji.

“However, we find that the legal position is difficult as the law does not criminalise the husband who forces his wife into sex or rapes her. But we have asked for a forensic medicine report as this is a lethal attack.”

Sigrid Kaag, regional head for the UN children’s agency, Unicef, described underage marriages as a “harmful practice”.

“The death of Elham Mahdi al Assi,” said Ms Kaag, “is a painful reminder of the risks girls face when they are married too soon,” said Ms Kaag.

Elham’s death is the second suchcase to be reported in the province in the the past several years. Fawzia Abdallah Youssef, a 12-year-old child bride, died in September 2008 in Hajja of haemorrhaging as she gave birth to a baby, which was stillborn. She had been married in 2007.

More than half Yemen’s girls are married before they reach puberty, according to UN figures.

The latest incident comes amid a controversy over proposed legislation to set a minimum age for marriage.

Thousands of conservative women protested outside parliament last month in opposition to the law, answering a call by Islamist parties. Some days later, hundreds of women’s rights activists held their own demonstration at the same venue in support of the law.

The proposed law, first approved by parliament last year though which has yet to pass into law, stipulates that parents who marry off their daughters before the age of 17 and sons before the age of 18 could face a year in jail or be fined US$500 (Dh1,800).

Conservative MPs who had opposed the measure called for the issue to be debated again before it was passed into law. The proposed legislation was sent back to parliament’s Sharia committee, which recommended that no age for marriage be set.

A number of clerics followed that up by issuing a fatwa last month in which they banned setting an age for marriage on grounds it goes against Sharia.

The legislative debate followed the highly publicised story of Nojoud Mohammed Ali, who, aged 10, sought a divorce in 2008 from her 30-year-old husband. Her story and that of 12-year-old Fawzia helped fuel the movement in favour of a minimum age for marriage.

Ms Kaag of Unicef called for lawmakers to pass rules that set a “reasonable minimum age for marriage”.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises the right to free and full consent to marriage. But when either party to a marriage is too young to make an informed decision, such consent is neither free nor full,” she said.

A study on early marriage carried out in 2008 by the Gender Development Research and Studies Centre at Sana’a University found that 52.1 per cent of girls are under 18 when they wed, compared with 6.7 per cent of boys.



* With additional reporting by James Reinl at the United Nations