Child bride Nujood Ali made history when she sought a divorce in 2008 at the age of 10. She has since written a book in which she says she was raped and abused by her much older husband. Photo taken 2008. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Yemen must ban child marriages in its new constitution and end the abuse and rape of young girls, rights activists say, a month after an eight-year-old girl reportedly bled to death on her wedding night after being raped by her 40-year-old husband.
"Child marriage is a huge problem in Yemen. It affects many thousands of girls every year and causes devastating emotional and physical harm," said Rothna Begum, Human Rights Watch (HRW) women's rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa.
"Right now Yemen has a unique opportunity to have a constitution that sets the minimum age of marriage at 18."
Yemen, whose president was ousted last year following a popular uprising, is holding a process called a National Dialogue, bringing together a cross section of society to map the country's future and pave the way for a new constitution.
Begum, who visited Yemen this month to press for a child marriage ban, said many poor families marry off young daughters to save on expenses and obtain dowry money.
About 14 percent of girls are married before 15, and more than half before 18, according to 2006 data from the United Nations and Yemen's government.
Yemen has no minimum age for marriage. It is illegal for a husband to have sex with his bride until she has reached puberty, but there is no penalty for men who break this law. Marital rape is not a crime in Yemen.
"Much older men are exploiting the situation of poverty-stricken families to marry very, very young girls," Begum said. "It's completely legal. And if they rape them under the age of puberty, there is no criminal penalty."
Begum said she had also urged the authorities in Yemen to revive a draft law on child marriage that has been languishing in parliament since 2009.
"I THOUGHT MARRIAGE WAS JUST A PARTY"
Child marriage cuts short girls' education and jeopardises their health when they have babies before their bodies are ready. It also increases the risk of sexual and domestic abuse.
Worldwide, girls who give birth between 10 and 14 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women who give birth in their early 20s, according to U.N. children's agency UNICEF. Yemen's maternal mortality rate is the highest in the region.
Girls and women interviewed by HRW have told how early marriage has deprived them of schooling. Some also said they had been raped and abused.
"I thought marriage was just a wedding, a party and that was it. I didn't have any idea that marriage had another meaning," one girl told HRW in a recently released video.
The government has ordered an inquiry into the case of Rawan, the eight-year-old girl said to have died on her wedding night in northern Yemen. Local officials dispute the reports and insist Rawan is still alive.
Begum said there had been previous incidents of very young girls dying shortly after marriage.
In March 2010, a 12-year-old girl, Elham Mahdi Al-Assi, died three days after she was married to a man twice her age. Her mother said her daughter had been tied up and raped.
A 2010 U.N. assessment on violence against women in Yemen said hospitals receive many girls who have suffered severe injuries resulting from forced sex, but rarely report these incidents to the local authorities.
International donors spend millions of dollars on aid in Yemen, but Begum said development would be limited while child marriage remained prevalent.
"Unless there is a ban, girls will continue to be taken out of school and will continue to risk injury and death through early pregnancies," she added. "At the end of the day, it's very difficult to tackle child marriage when you don't have a law to say that it's wrong."
In 1999, Yemen's parliament abolished the then minimum marriage age of 15 on religious grounds.
Ten years later, parliament voted to set 17 as the new minimum, but the law was scuppered by a minority of lawmakers who said reinstating a minimum age was contrary to sharia.
However, HRW says other countries that recognise sharia have set a minimum age of 18 or higher. These include Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates.
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