The death of a 12-year-old Yemeni wife during childbirth underscores the plight of girls who marry before they have matured - physically and mentally. Reformers are calling for minimum age laws, but face conservative opposition. Hamida Ghafour and Suha Philip Ma'ayeh report. Eight days ago, a young Yemeni wife named Fawziyah Abdullah Youssef died of severe bleeding after three days in labour at a hospital in the coastal province of Hodeida. Her child was stillborn.
Fawziyah's death, like many such tragedies, would have gone unnoticed if not for an alert children's rights activist who was visiting the hospital investigating cases of children who had fled the fighting between the government troops and al Houthi rebels in northern Saada province. Ahmed al Quraishi noticed that the young girl lying on the hospital bed was only 12 years old - and decided to share her plight with the world.
"Although the cause of her death was lack of medical care, the real cause was the lack of education in Yemen and the fact that child marriages keep happening," he said. Since then, the death of Fawziyah, whose parents pulled her out of school a year ago to marry her to a 24-year-old farmer, has made international headlines and the issue of child brides in Arab countries, whom Mr Quraishi called the "brides of death", is back in the spotlight.
In Yemen, 37 per cent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before they turned 18, the highest rate in the Arab world, according to United Nations figures. In other developing countries such as Afghanistan nearly half of all marriages involve brides under the age of 16. In the Arab world, a political battle is currently being waged over the issue of child marriage. Reformers and children's rights groups are pushing to change the law to set a minimum age for marriage at 17 or 18. However, conservatives, usually backed by religious leaders, are against it.
Sharia does not explicitly give a marriage age, but all 22 members of the Arab League have signed the UN's international convention on the rights of the child, which recommends a minimum age of 18. In Yemen, a majority of politicians in parliament agreed in February to establish a minimum age of 17, but the law has not yet been put into practice, partly because of conservative opposition. The Islamist party in Bahrain, al Wefaq, criticised a ministerial order to set the legal age for marriage at 15 on the grounds that it went against Islamic principles. In Saudi Arabia, the ministry of health issued a report in February warning that girls deprived of their childhood by being married off too early were at risk of developing mental illness. Reformers there are also trying to establish 18 as the minimum legal age.
The minimum age in Morocco has been 18 since 2004 after a hard fight by women to reform the laws, although loopholes still exist. In Jordan, a temporary personal status law in 2001 brought the legal age to 18 from 15 after political battles by activists in a country where, a decade ago early marriages made up 20 per cent of all marital unions. Early marriage and teenage pregnancy lead to divorce, family breakdown and poor child rearing, activists say. Adolescent brides are sometimes exposed to sexually transmitted diseases and are less likely to have information about contraceptives. They are easily bullied by older husbands.
For many teenage girls, being forced into the role of wife and mother before their body and emotions reach maturity can be traumatic. Nour Eid, 16, from Amman, said her parents took her out of school last year and married her to a man twice her age - all in the same day. "It was a horror movie and a nightmare that I cannot get rid off," she recalled. "He used to beat me every day with a hose. I was just a little girl. I didn't want to marry and I was good at school but my parents forced me. We are poor and for them they could make use of the dowry. I became a commodity."
The union lasted one week. The practice still persists because, despite the law, a clause permits judges to sanction a marriage for a 15-year-old girl if he decides the marriage is for her own good, said Elham Shawwa, a consultant at the Jordanian Women's Union. "An exception in the law has turned into a norm. We are currently working on eliminating the clause and so is the supreme judge department but it is unlikely that our demand would be approved. It is believed that marriage is better for girls who have certain circumstances like when a girl is living with her stepmother, or if her father is sexually assaulting her.
"Therefore we proposed that a jury of judges, and not just one judge, investigate if the marriage serves the girl's own good and that she was not pressured into it." This is a common problem in many countries, such as Syria and Morocco, where loopholes or clauses in the law allow the courts to grant parents the right to marry off their children at a younger age. "This is exactly why we need to work on two fronts; legislation is not enough," said Laurent Chapuis, Unicef's child protection specialist for the Middle East and North Africa.
"It's to do with education, marriage, child labour, what we call child protection. You need to work with governments to establish a child protection system by having laws, policing, raising awareness, monitoring, training social workers, judges, lawyers." Supporters of early marriage say that it is just, arguing that one of the Prophet Mohammed's wives, Ayesha, was aged six or nine when they married. But a religious defence is often a mask for various social pressures.
Maryam Ismail, 45, a Sharjah-based sociologist, said many poor families who could not afford to pay for their daughter's education saw marriage as a way to relieve the financial burden of raising her. "Sometimes the marriage contract will say the husband has to pay for her education," she said. Or parents will extract a promise from the prospective husband not to consummate the marriage until the young bride is older.
In Muslim culture, a family's reputation is tied to the behaviour of its women, especially how they behave around men who are not related to them. To protect a girl's reputation, families marry her off to prevent her from becoming the subject of neighbourhood gossip. "If you have a bad reputation you may as well go and die in the sand," said Mrs Ismail. "A family will say, 'Do you know that family? How is she raised? Is she a decent girl?'"
In the Emirates, where teenage marriages were common a generation ago, more women are delaying marriage as they take up higher education. Mrs Ismail said the issue was much more complicated that many people thought. "Look at Nujood Ali, who will take her now?" she said, referring to the 2008 case of the 10-year-old Yemeni girl who requested and was granted a divorce by the court after her poverty-stricken father forced her into marriage with a man aged 30, who beat and raped her every night.
"Her family is ruined because the case was publicised all over the world. I'm not defending the practice of child marriage but it has some benefits," said Mrs Ismail, 45. "It has honour. I was 16 when I had my first child. I had my grandma, my mother with me. I don't think a 10-year-old should be married, but 14, 15, 16 is more equipped. In Texas you see girls at 15 pregnant and unmarried and so much culture in America is sexualised."
Mr Chapuis said that the longer girls stayed in school and the stronger the government effort to make sure they had access to education, the lower the rate of child marriage. It was no coincidence, that in Algeria and Tunisia, where education levels are high, less than 10 per cent of girls aged between 20 and 24 were married before the age of 18. "It's also getting the point that by changing your behaviour you don't change your values," he said. "The values are that parents want to care for their daughters, provide a good future, and have the respect of the community. We need to show how offering education, making sure her health is not at risk will enable her to apply those values."
In Syria, women's groups are trying to bring a law that requires girls and boys to be at least 18 before they marry. Some agencies, arguing that change will take many years in developing countries, have put in place programmes to educate girls likely to get married at a young age. "A lot of time it is pure poverty," said Mrs Ismail. "Fix the poverty, help them, help the situation. Don't just say they are bad people. A minimum age of marriage is required, but how do you enforce it without having spies in the house or someone watching from the window?"