Yemen's Sacrificial Child Brides

The Yemen Observer reports that Elham Madhin al Assi, a 12-year-old Yemeni girl, died from internal bleeding just three days after her March 29th wedding. She was swapped in exchange for her brother's bride -- given to a man twice her age. The medical report released by the Hajjah hospital states Elham suffered "sexual exhaust, cervix tears, and severe bleeding." The AP interview with Elham's mother is even more disturbing. Before her daughter lost consciousness, she told her mother that her husband, who said he had sought tranquilizers to subdue his bride, tied her up and raped her. Following the night of her rape, her husband brought her to a clinic because she couldn't walk. He was advised by doctors not to have sex with Assi for 10 days. She died the next day. Though termed a "swap marriage," the tradition where a brother of the bride marries the sister of the groom, it is essentially child sexual exploitation under the guise of marriage. The widespread problem of child marriage in Yemen made international headlines in 2008, when 10-year-old Nujood Ali ran away from her abusive husband and was awarded a divorce. Nujood went on to be an international celebrity for women's rights -- championed by Hillary Clinton and awarded "Women of the Year" by Glamour. Though a brave, young girl who won the hearts of many, CNN reports that Nujood continues to live in abject poverty and discrimination.

Yemen officials continue to battle over the legal age of marriage and in so doing, defy the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Twelve-year-old Fawziya Ammodi, died last fall, after three days of labor with her still-born baby. None of these cases in Yemen criminalize the husband since it is still not against the law to marry a child, nor to rape her, once she is your wife.

It is widely known that child marriage is a violation of human rights and now it is increasingly becoming known as a health hazard. As I wrote last summer, child brides face a high risk of abuse, rape, contracting HIV/AIDS, and dying in childbirth. According to the 2009 UN Millennium Development Goals report, of the 536,000 annual maternal deaths, 70,000 were adolescents, making pregnancy the leading cause of death for girls ages 14-19.

This week in Lesotho, South Africa, Ann Veneman, Executive Director of UNICEF, launched the fourth edition of Facts for Life, a publication which delivers life-saving information to families and communities on how to prevent child and maternal deaths, diseases, injuries and violence. It is a co-publication by UNICEF, WHO, WFP, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNDP and UNAIDS. The increased health risks for birth mothers under the age of 18 are mentioned repeatedly in the new edition and child marriage is specifically noted as a harmful practice. Girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties.

In their 2005 observations of Yemen, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child stated many concerns, including Yemen's inconsistency in defining a child's age, the low legal age for marriage of girls, and the fact that girls were marrying even younger than 15 years due to the lack of law enforcement.

Five years have passed and Yemen is still one of the worst places to be a child. The committee's September 2009 observations and recommendations are not for the light-hearted. In addition to their continued concern that the law still does not provide equal protection to all children under the age of 18, the committee is "deeply concerned" that the following offenses against children are not explicitly criminalized: illegal adoption, sexual exploitation, especially under the guise of "tourist marriages" or "temporary marriages," forced child labor, child pornography, and the sale of children -- with parental consent -- for their organs. This is a human rights crisis in a country where grown men in parliament sit and argue for the right to marry children under the pretense of religious authority. The UN needs to do more than be "deeply concerned." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ann Veneman, UNICEF Executive Director, should visit Yemen and let them know that the world is watching their snail-paced response to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. We need to send a strong message that girls are not property to be sold or traded. Girls are not objects existing to prove men's "manhood" in Yemen or any other country in the world.

Sanctioned early marriage is legalized, sexual-exploitation of children.