“Rawan” was an eight-year-old Yemeni girl just married to a 40-year-old man in the Hajja province town of Meedi. Despite her age, Rawan’s husband had sex with his new bride the night of their nuptials. “On the wedding night and after intercourse, she suffered from bleeding and uterine rupture which caused her death,” a Yemeni human rights campaigner, Arwa Othman, subsequently told Reuters. “They took her to a clinic but the medics couldn’t save her life.” Making the horrific story worse, local officials reputedly are trying to cover up the story.
The account has generated a fair bit of media coverage in both the Arabic and English-language press, and even the European Union is in high dudgeon. Such marriages to Western eyes smack of little better than legalized pedophilia. Attention to the subject is particularly sharp in the United Kingdom, which struggles with how to cope with less extreme arranged marriages among its own South Asian population. Nonetheless, Rawan’s tale remains unverified, and there’s some reason to suspect it’s not true. (The story already has a Snopes listing. Status: Undetermined.)
The head of SEYAJ Organization for Childhood Protection, a Yemeni NGO, told Gulf News he’d talked with local officials who “flatly denied” the account and his own group’s on-the-ground examination cast doubt on the story. “Some people create these stories to get publicity and attention and aid from international organizations,” Ahmad Al Qurishi offered. Given that his own group has been fighting child marriages for years, his caution in accepting this particular story is telling.
So how does something this outlandish get attention?
Largely because, as Al Qurishi and others would be the first to insist, it’s not outlandish at all. It’s of a piece with earlier verified reports of arranged child marriages in Yemen. In 2008, nine-year-old Nujood Ali made headlines when she sought and won divorce after two months of less than wedded bliss to her 30-year-old husband. Her story, “I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced,” came out in 2010 to another flurry of media attention. Earlier this year, the Arabic-language video of 11-year-old Nada al-Ahdal, who ran away from home rather than be forced into a marriage, went viral. “You killed my dreams, all of them,” she tells her matchmaking parents.
Per a Human Rights Watch report, “How Come You Allow Little Girls to Get Married?” from 2011:
According to a nationally representative survey conducted by the Yemeni government and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2006, 14 percent of girls in Yemen are married before reaching age 15, and 52 percent are married before 18. A 2005 study by Sana’a University noted that, in some rural areas, girls as young as eight are married.
The further out in the sticks you get, the younger the age of prospective brides. There’s an economic incentive for poor families to pony up a daughter or two: the dowry.
Dr. Nawal M. Nour offered a cogent summation of child marriage’s drivers a few years back in the journal Reviews of Obstetrics and Gynecology:
Three main forces drive child marriages: poverty, the need to reinforce social ties, and the belief that it offers protection. Child marriage is predominantly seen in areas of poverty. Parents are faced with two economic incentives: to ensure their daughter’s financial security and to reduce the economic burden daughters place on the family.
Child marriage is first and foremost a product of sheer economic need. Girls are costly to feed, clothe, and educate, and they eventually leave the household. Marriage brings a dowry to the bride’s family. The younger the girl, the higher the dowry, and the sooner the economic burden of raising the girl is lifted.
“Given the poverty,” explains Belkis Wille, a researcher for HRW, “families view their daughters as an economic asset…. Unfortunately, the older the husband is and the younger the girl is, the larger the size of the dowry.”
A very young bride’s husband generally is expected to wait until the girls reach puberty before deflowering them, but that may be honored more in the breach than the observation.
Hooria Mashhour, Yemen’s human rights minister, is using the Rawan incident as a springboard to push through a minimum age for children to marry. Still, setting the age at 18—actually older than Britain and many U.S. states—seems unlikely to make it into law; Yemen’s got plenty of other problems and brutality aimed at its women and children just don’t make the cut. Sunni-dominated Yemen had a minimum age of 15 written into law, but that was abolished in 1999 on religious grounds. (Of course, like many religious questions, this seems a product as much of culture as commandment. In the eight century, for example, well before the invention of Western scolds, the famous Islamic jurist Abu Hanifa set the minimum age of marriage at 18. But sharia law in, say, Afghanistan sets the limits at the onset of puberty.)
If all of this was some sort of goofy “only in Sana’a” phenomenon, like chewing qat, the individual pain would be as deep but the resonance less wide. But according to the United Nations Population Fund: “For the period 2000-2011, just over one third (an estimated 34 per cent) of women aged 20 to 24 years in developing regions were married or in union before their 18th birthday. In 2010 this was equivalent to almost 67 million women. About 12 per cent of them were married or in union before age 15.” Globally, Yemen doesn’t even make it into the top 10, according to a 2011 report from the NGO World Vision, which identified Niger, Chad, and Bangladesh as having the highest child marriage rates.
It’s not just Islamic countries, either. World Vision’s top 10 included Nepal, Malawi, Mozambique, and Ethiopia. “Child marriages take place in every continent,” wrote former presidents Jimmy Carter (U.S.) and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil) in a 2010 op-ed, “but they are particularly common in south Asia and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Child marriage rates reach 65 percent in Bangladesh and 48 percent in India – 76 percent in Niger and 71 percent in Chad.”
Because child marriage is in effect forced marriage (or at least coerced), and since it pretty much rips childhood from the betrothed girls, the United Nations deems it a human rights violation. It’s also responsible for a host of other pathologies, as Dr. Nour sums up:
Child marriage directly impacts girls’ education, health, psychologic well-being, and the health of their offspring. It increases the risk for depression, sexually transmitted infection, cervical cancer, malaria, obstetric fistulas, and maternal mortality. Their offspring are at an increased risk for premature birth and, subsequently, neonatal or infant death.
Efforts to outlaw the practice tend to fall flat along economic lines; many busted countries already have a marriage age at 16 or higher. (Countries where economies have blossomed, like Thailand, South Korea, and Taiwan, have seen rates of child marriage fall.) And interventions or initiatives to combat the practice foisted from outside will likely have the same trajectories of other attempts to help poor countries imposed from outside—mixed at best.
But the U.N, Jimmy Carter, Nour, NGOs like GirlsNotBrides.org, and a bunch of other people think they have a way to end this practice, and it’s by taking the aspirin of global development: educate girls.
“While girls with low levels of education are more likely to be married early,” the heads of three U.N. agencies wrote in 2012, “those with secondary education are up to six times less likely to marry as children, and more likely to send their children to school. Education is one of the best strategies to protect girls against child marriage and provide them with the opportunity to build a better life for themselves, their families and their communities.”
There’s a reason we see instinctive and even violent efforts to curtail girls’ education—it empowers them, and if you’re a male with a Manichean mindset their gain is your loss. “My husband gets angry any time I asked him if I can take up my schooling again, so I stopped asking,” one 14-year-old Nigerian bride told The Guardian. “But my heart is in school.”
So even if educated women bring with them greater family wealth, an improved local economy, fewer mouths to feed, and better health, not to mention alleviating issues of, say, basic fairness, that’s apparently too little compensation for removing some men’s exalted status as dictator of the dungheap.