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Tiny Voices Defy Child Marriage in Yemen

by Robert F. Worth

JIBLA, Yemen - 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.

"Voices are rising in society against this phenomenon and its catastrophes," said Shawki al-Qadhi, an imam and opposition member in Parliament who has tried unsuccessfully to muster support for a legal ban on child marriage in Yemen in the past. "But despite rejections of it by many people and some religious scholars, it continues."

The issue first arose because of Nujood, a bright-eyed girl barely four feet tall. Her ordeal began in February, when her father took her from Sana, the Yemeni capital, to his home village for the wedding. She was given almost no warning.

"I was very frightened and worried," Nujood recalled, speaking in a soft, childlike voice as she sat cross-legged on the floor in her family's bare three-room home in a slum not far from Sana's airport. "I wanted to go home."

As she told her story, Nujood gradually gained confidence, smiling shyly as if she were struggling to hold back laughter. Later, she removed her veil, revealing her shoulder-length brown hair.

The trouble started on the first night, when her 30-year-old husband, Faez Ali Thamer, took off her clothes as soon as the light was out. She ran crying from the room, but he caught her, brought her back and forced himself on her. Later, he beat her as well.

"I hated life with him," she said, staring at the ground in front of her. The wedding came so quickly that no one bothered to tell her how women become pregnant, or what a wife's role is, she added.

Her father, Ali Muhammad al-Ahdal, said he had agreed to the marriage because two of Nujood's older sisters had been kidnapped and forcibly married, with one of them ending up in jail. Mr. Ahdal said he had feared the same thing would happen to Nujood, and early marriage had seemed a better alternative.

A gaunt, broken-looking man, Mr. Ahdal once worked as a street sweeper. Now he and his family beg for a living. He has 16 children by two women.

Poverty is one reason so many Yemeni families marry their children off early. Another is the fear of girls being carried off and married by force. But most important are cultural tradition and the belief that a young virginal bride can best be shaped into a dutiful wife, according to comprehensive study of early marriage published by Sana University in 2006.

Nujood complained repeatedly to her husband's relatives and later to her own parents after the couple moved back to their house in Sana. But they said they could do nothing. To break a marriage would expose the family to shame. Finally, her uncle told her to go to court. On April 2, she said, she walked out of the house by herself and hailed a taxi.

It was the first time she had traveled anywhere alone, Nujood recalled, and she was frightened. On arriving at the courthouse, she was told the judge was busy, so she sat on a bench and waited. Suddenly he was standing over her, imposing in his dark robes. "You're married?" he said, with shock in his voice.

Right away, he invited her to spend the night at his family's house, she said, since court sessions were already over for the day. There, she spent hours watching television, something she had never known in her family's slum apartment, which lacks even running water.

When Nujood's case was called the next Sunday, the courtroom was crowded with reporters and photographers, alerted by her lawyer. Her father and husband were also there; the judge had jailed them the night before to ensure that they would appear in court. (Both were released the next day.) "Do you want a separation, or a permanent divorce?" the judge, Muhammad al-Qadhi, asked the girl, after hearing her testimony and that of her father and her husband.

"I want a permanent divorce," she replied, without hesitation. The judge granted it.

Afterward, Ms. Nasser, the lawyer, took Nujood to a celebratory party at the offices of a local newspaper, where she was showered with dolls and other toys. Nujood lived with her uncle for a time after the ruling but then insisted on returning to her father's house. "I have forgiven him," she said. She swears she will never marry again, and she wants to become a human rights lawyer, like Ms. Nasser, or perhaps a journalist.

Despite the victory, Ms. Nasser and other advocates say they are worried about the lack of legal means to fight early marriage. Nujood's case only reached the court because she took such a wildly unusual step and happened on a sympathetic judge.

"We were lucky with this judge," Ms. Nasser said. "Another judge might not have accepted her in court, and would have asked her father or brother to come instead," and Nujood would probably still be married today.

A 1992 Yemeni law set the minimum legal age of marriage at 15. But in 1998 Parliament revised it, allowing girls to be married earlier as long as they did not move in with their husbands until they reached sexual maturity.

That change reflected the triumph of northern Yemen's more conservative Islamic culture over the secular and Marxist south after North and South Yemen united in 1990. In South Yemen, the government had passed a law in 1979 setting the age of marriage at 16 for women and 18 for men. An extensive public awareness campaign, including songs and television spots with titles like "The Victimized Daughter of the Tribe" and "Traditions and Rituals" helped educate people about the dangers posed by early marriage and pregnancy.

But in Yemen, as in Afghanistan - another country where child marriage is common - the fight against Communism ended with the triumph of a hard-line form of Islam. After war broke out in 1994, Ali Abdullah Saleh, then North Yemen's leader, sent jihadists to fight South Yemen. Critics say he has become politically indebted to conservative Islamists.

After Nujood's case became public, Ms. Nasser said she received angry letters from conservative women denouncing her for her role. But she has also begun receiving calls about girls, some younger than Nujood, trying to escape their marriages.

One of them was Arwa, who was married last year at the age of 8 here in the ancient town of Jibla, four hours south of Sana. As with Nujood's case, Arwa's situation aroused a legal and social outrage.

Standing outside a relative's house here, her hands clasped in front of her, Arwa described how surprised she was when her father arranged her marriage to a 35-year-old man eight months ago. Like Nujood, she did not know the facts of life, she said. The man raped and beat her.

Finally, after months of misery, she ran to a hospital. Employees there took her to a police station, she said. A local judge, on receiving her case, briefly jailed the judge who had approved the marriage contract. Arwa is living with relatives while her case awaits a resolution. But her relatives rarely let her out of the house, fearing that her husband, who has refused the judge's demands that he appear in court, may take her again.

Asked what made her flee her husband after so many months, Arwa gazed up, an intense, defiant expression in her eyes.

"I thought about it," she said in a very quiet but firm voice. "I thought about it."

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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