Child Bride Fights Against Forced Marriage

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Child Bride Fights Against Forced Marriage
Reem Al Numery of Yemen defies father, society to secure her rights

Washington — In 2008, at the start of her school vacation, 12-year-old Reem Al Numery was forced to marry her 30-year-old cousin.

“While my hair was styled for the ceremony, I thought of ways to set fire to my wedding dress,” Reem told U.S. Embassy officials in an interview. “When I protested, my dad gagged me and tied me up. After the wedding, I tried to kill myself twice.”

Reem is part of a recent cadre of young Yemeni girls who have defied their families and threats of violence to stand up for their rights.

The legal age of consent for girls to marry in Yemen recently was raised to 17, but a combination of tradition and widespread poverty means younger girls often are forced into matrimony to relieve economic pressure on their families. Customs dictate that a girl’s groom waits until the bride is post-pubescent to consummate the marriage, but this was not the case for Reem. She described to BBC reporters how her husband raped her: When she resisted sex, he choked and bit her, dragged her by the hair and overwhelmed her with his greater strength.

Political activism by Yemeni pre-teens sold into wedlock began with Nujood Al Ahdel, another courageous child, who, at the age of 10, walked out of her forced marriage and successfully initiated divorce proceedings. Her inspiring story focused international attention on the plight of child brides.

Reem shares a lawyer and circumstances with Al Ahdel, but faces additional obstacles. Reem’s father will not consent to her divorce, leading the judge to decree that, because she is a minor, she must remain married until she can make her own decisions at age 15. Reem’s lawyer is appealing the verdict, and Reem lives with her mother.

Because she is legally married and because Yemeni law has no laws addressing sexual abuse within a marriage, this 12-year-old is still at the mercy of her husband and her father. “My dad said he'll kill me for defying him,” Reem told reporters in August 2008, “but I want to go back to school.”

“She told me that she wants to live a normal life, like any other girl her age, and I am afraid that is not possible yet,” Reem’s lawyer told the Yemen Times. “Sometimes she just wants to play and enjoy life like a young girl, and other times she is talking about things like a mature woman who has been married for long. This marriage experience has made her neither a girl nor a woman.”

Yemeni judges, hesitant to grant divorces to pre-teens, are drawing international pressure triggered by the cases brought by Al Ahdel and other girls. The personal bravery of Reem Al Numery expands the divorce issue to encompass the potentially more complex and difficult cases of enduring paternal complicity, and challenges the Yemeni legal system to put an unequivocal end to a practice that robs girls of their childhood.

For her exceptional bravery, Reem was recognized by the U.S. secretary of state with a 2009 International Women of Courage Award. The award ceremony will take place March 11.