Child marriage and divorce in Yemen

By Jenny Cuffe
BBC World Service, Assignment

A narrow path leads up from the mountain town of Jibla, through century-old 
houses, and turns into a mud track before reaching the door of Arwa's home.

The nine year old child lives with her parents and six brothers and sisters in 
a humble, two-roomed house overlooking the mosque built by her namesake, Queen 
Arwa, who ruled Yemen 900 years ago.

She knows nothing of wealth and power but, in her own way, she has helped make 

Arwa is the youngest of three Yemeni girls who recently went to court 
complaining they were married against their will and asking for divorce - an 
astonishing display of defiance that has prompted the government to review its 
law on early marriage.

The child's dark eyes shine from a pale face framed by her black headscarf. Her 
expression is eloquent yet she struggles to find words for what she's suffered.

Earlier this year, her father announced she was to be married, ignoring her 
tears of protest. She claims to have forgotten her husband's name and all she 
will say about him is that he seemed tall and old.

Sold off

Coming in from the street where he's been digging drains, Abdul Mohammed Ali 
takes up the story. He describes how a stranger, a man in his mid forties, 
approached him in the market asking if he knew of any marriageable girls.

After visiting their home and seeing Arwa and her 15-year-old sister, he opted 
for the younger child. Abdul Ali says the man promised he would wait for the 
girl to reach puberty before calling her to his house but then changed his mind 
and came to live with them.

So why did he sell his daughter to a stranger?

"He gave me 30,000 rial ($150, £90) and promised another 400,000 ($2,000). I 
was really in need of money and thought it was a solution for the family," he 

For seven months, Arwa's husband shared the small room where the family eat, 
play and sleep.

When Arwa fought off his advances, she was beaten. The torment only came to an 
end when her husband and father quarrelled and Abdul Ali gave her permission to 
seek outside help.

At this point in the narrative, she finds her voice again, describing how she 
went looking for a neighbour who could lend her money for the journey to court 
where the judge took pity on her and granted her freedom.

A medical examination showed that she had been sexually molested but was still 
technically a virgin

Arwa's audacity in seeking a divorce was inspired by the example of Nujood, 
another young girl from the capital, Sanaa, who has become a national celebrity.

Prophet's example

A third girl, Reem is still waiting for the court's decision and says her two 
ambitions are to get a divorce and go to college.

Married at 12, she describes the moment when her 30-year-old husband insisted 
on sex. When she resisted, he choked and bit her and dragged her by the hair, 
overwhelming her with force.

She was imprisoned for 11 days in his house and tried to kill herself with a 
kitchen knife before being rescued by her mother.

Although Yemen has a law stating that 15 is the marriageable age, it is 
frequently flouted, particularly in poor rural areas where society is run along 
tribal lines.

Members of Parliament have recently been debating an amendment raising the age 
limit to 18, but progress has ground to a halt in the face of strong opposition 
from conservatives.

Sheikh Hamoud Hashim al-Tharihi is general secretary of the increasingly 
influential Vice and Virtue Committee and a member of the Islah Party. He cites 
the example of the Prophet Muhammad who married six-year-old Aisha but waited 
for consummation till she was a little older.

"Because this happened to the Prophet, we cannot tell people that it is 
prohibited to marry at an early age," he argues. Moreover, he claims it would 
harm society by spreading vice.

Bitter fight ahead

Yemen's Minister for Social Affairs, Professor Amat al-Razzak Hammed, 
recognises that the government needs to compromise and would personally opt for 
a legal age of 16.

She emphasises the importance of a legal framework enabling courts to punish 
fathers who marry their children off early and officials who sign the marriage 
contracts, and says the government has consulted Islamic scholars to ensure 
that it can be done in accordance with Sharia.

With parliamentary elections next year, President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 
government may be reluctant to alienate the growing forces of Islamic 
fundamentalism, so women's rights campaigners are preparing for a bitter fight. 
They are concerned that, with the global economic down-turn, more families will 
be under pressure to sacrifice their young daughters.

At her home in Jibla, Arwa is putting the past behind her and returning to 
childish games of hide and seek in the narrow passageways near her home.

But, without a firm lead from government, her father Abdul Ali may be tempted a 
second time to take money for his daughter's hand in marriage, curtailing her 
childhood once and for all.

You can listen to Jenny Cuffe's Assignment programme

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2008/11/06 09:38:46 GMT


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