One morning last month, Arwa Abdu Muhammad Ali walked out of her husband’s house here and ran to a local hospital, where she complained that he had been beating and sexually abusing her for eight months.
That alone would be surprising in Yemen, a deeply conservative Arab society where family disputes tend to be solved privately. What made it even more unusual was that Arwa was 9 years old.
Within days, Arwa — a tiny, delicate-featured girl — had become a celebrity in Yemen, where child marriage is common but has rarely been exposed in public. She was the second child bride to come forward in less than a month; in April, a 10-year-old named Nujood Ali had gone by herself to a courthouse to demand a divorce, generating a landmark legal case.
Together, the two girls’ stories have helped spur a movement to put an end to child marriage, which is increasingly seen as a crucial part of the cycle of poverty in Yemen and other third world countries. Pulled out of school and forced to have children before their bodies are ready, many rural Yemeni women end up illiterate and with serious health problems. Their babies are often stunted, too.
The average age of marriage in Yemen’s rural areas is 12 to 13, a recent study by Sana University researchers found. The country, at the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.
“This is the first shout,” said Shada Nasser, a human rights lawyer who met Nujood, the 10-year-old, after she arrived at the courthouse to demand a divorce. Ms. Nasser decided instantly to take her case. “All other early marriage cases have been dealt with by tribal sheiks, and the girl never had any choice.”
But despite a rising tide of outrage, the fight against the practice is not easy. Hard-line Islamic conservatives, whose influence has grown enormously in the past two decades, defend it, pointing to the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to a 9-year-old. Child marriage is deeply rooted in local custom here, and even enshrined in an old tribal expression: “Give me a girl of 8, and I can give you a guarantee” for a good marriage.
To read more visit The Times Online