Source: Al Jazeera
By :Hugh Macleod 05\08\2010
Sally as-Sabahi used to love playing the make-believe marriage game with her brothers and sisters.
For a little girl living in a single room down a back alley of Old Sanaa, imagining the new wedding clothes, make-up and party for her school friends was a thrilling way to escape the daily grind of poverty.
So when her mother showed her the real-life snow white dress and sparkling jewellery she promised would be hers, 10-year-old Sally had no problem agreeing to marry the man her parents had chosen: Nabil, her 25-year-old first cousin, for whom Sally would be a second marriage.
Sally recently won a divorce from Nabil after her story made headline news in local media and became the focus of a national debate that has polarised Yemeni society.
"I don't call it marriage, I call it rape," said Shada Nasser, a lawyer who has worked on several child marriage cases.
Nojoud Ali al-Ahdal, who was herself raped and beaten by her 30-year-old husband when she was nine years old, was the first of only three Yemeni child brides to win a divorce. But the practice of child marriage affects millions in Yemen.
The International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) found that just under half of all girls in Yemen are married before they are 18 - classified as underage by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Yemen is a signatory.
With no legal minimum age for marriage, a study by Sanaa University found that in some of Yemen's regions half of all girls are married before the age of 15.
'Robbed of a childhood'
"The greatest problem facing Yemeni women today is child marriages," said Wafa Ali of the Yemeni Women's Union. "These early marriages rob the girl of the right to a normal childhood and education. The girls are forced to have children before their bodies are fully grown."
Many girls suffer repeated miscarriages or end up with complications brought on by the trauma of forced sex, said Dr Arwa Elrabee, a leading gynaecologist.
In April a local women's rights group reported that 12-year-old bride Elham Shuee had died three days after marrying a man in his 20s. The girl suffered a rupture of the womb caused by sex, said Majed al-Mathhaji, a spokesman for the Sisters Arab Forum.
Last September, another 12-year-old, Fawziya Abdullah Youssef, bled to death during three days of child birth - her body, doctors said afterwards, was simply too small to cope.
Sally remembers the first night Nabil forced himself on her. "At first, I felt safe. I mean I didn't know what was going on, so how could I be scared? I started bleeding. It hurt. I was crying and shouting and hated myself. Since that I have seen him like death."
One evening, sick of Sally's refusal to sleep with Nabil again, her aunt tied her to the bed. Eventually Sally's parents were called.
At stake was the $1,000 dowry Nabil's family had paid to Sally's father. Earning little over $2 a day selling chilies in the market of Old Sanaa, Mabkhout as-Sabahi had spent the money on rent and paying off debts. If Sally refused to live up to her marital obligations Nabil could ask for his money back and Mabkhout could not pay.
Stirring a cup of tea for his daughter Mabkhout slipped a powerful sleeping pill into it and gave the mug to Sally to drink.
"We wanted to prove we were not encouraging Sally to refuse her husband," said her father.
But the single pill was not strong enough, so a few days later Mabkhout used two.
"He forced me to drink it," said Sally. "I drank it all. He was hitting me. I was so dizzy."
Behind her black niqab, tears well up in the eyes of Sally's mother, Nouria: "I never spoke with my daughters about sex.
I felt ashamed. I trusted my sister would care for her like a daughter."Minimum age
Before unification in 1990 Yemeni law set the minimum age for marriage at 17. But with the victory of the north over the south that was reduced to 15.
Nine years later amendments to civil status laws abolished a minimum age altogether.
Last year a majority of MPs voted to re-establish a minimum age of 17, but the bill was rejected by the Islamic Sharia Codification Committee.
Sheikh Mohammed al-Hazmi has led the opposition to a minimum age and issued a fatwa, or religious decree, signed by 140 of Yemen's leading religious authorities, warning any Yemeni against supporting the "un-Islamic" attempt to restrict the age of marriage.
"We view a child as an adult when she reaches puberty, not when she is 18 as you do in the West," he said in an interview in the Rahman Mosque where he preaches.
"In the West you have this freedom slogan. Satellite channels make the young sexually aroused. If they have sex and are not married they commit adultery and this is forbidden in Islam. So we allow them to marry and not to commit a crime.
Flash bulbs light up the otherwise gloomy office of the judge.
A plump thumb is dipped into the dark ink and carefully lowered onto the paper next to the curving Arabic letters that spell out her name.
Behind her niqab, Sally's eyes narrow in a smile as the judge studies the document; two thumb prints next to each other, the last proximity of a marriage that was anything but close.
"I was feeling this morning there was a black cloud hanging over my head," said Sally, leaving the judge's office after her historical divorce. "Today I feel so free."