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Page last updated at 09:38 GMT, Thursday, 6 November 2008

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.

Arwa, 9
Arwa is making history by requesting a divorce aged just nine

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 history.

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.

Jibla in Yemen
Jibla village has been in the news since Arwa's request

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 explains.

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.

Reem, aged12
Reem wants a divorce and then a college education

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.

Arwa and her father Abdul Ali
Arwa hopes that money will not tempt her father to marry her off again

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 here



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SEE ALSO
Saudi child 'files for divorce'
24 Aug 08 |  Middle East
Yemeni child bride gets annullment
16 Apr 08 |  Middle East
Country profile: Yemen
08 Oct 08 |  Country profiles

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