April 10, 2010, 4:21 pm
Another Dead Child-Bride
By NICHOLAS KRISTOF
Perhaps it’s a good sign that we’re hearing more tragedies from Yemen about child brides: That does mean that the issue is now a public topic there, and some people are complaining about the abuse these girls suffer. In part, that’s a credit to Nujood, the extraordinary girl I wrote about recently because of her memoir and her campaign against child marriage.
But just when you feel progress is being made, you come across a story like this one that came across the wire today from the Associated Press:
A 13-year-old Yemeni child bride who bled to death shortly after marriage was tied down and forced to have sex by her husband, according to interviews with the child’s mother, police and medical reports.
The girl’s mother, Nijma Ahmed, 50, told the Associated Press that before her daughter lost consciousness, she said that her husband had tied her up and forced himself on her. ”She looked like she was butchered,” she said about her daughter’s injuries.
Elham Assi, 13, bled to death hours after she spoke to her mother and just days after she was married to a 23-year-old man.
As far as I can tell, these tragedies happen with distressing frequency in countries like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and other countries. And of course for ever girl who dies after a child marriage, far more are injured — and all have their childhoods abruptly terminated.
Furthermore, when they are married off at age 11 or 12, girls invariably are pulled out of school. That means they will have less chance to earn money and won’t be able to care so well for their own children. And they’re more likely to marry their own daughters off young as well.
I do sense that attitudes are changing. It used to be that families felt that if their daughters weren’t married off by 13 or 14, the girl was at risk of an affair or a rape that would shame the entire family (and prevent other children from being married properly). In Pakistan, where I’ve done the most reporting on this, that was how parents justified early marriages to me. But these days, increasingly there is also beginning to be a hint of stigma about very early marriages, and also some appreciation that keeping girls in school gives them more status and more earning power. An educated girl invariably earns more in a bride price, for example.
My hope is that we’re at a tipping point as social norms change. Something similar happened in early 20th century China: for a long time, parents who did not bind their daughters’ feet feared that the girls would never be able to marry, and then over a couple of decades the risk became that if they did bind their daughters’ feet those girls would never marry.
One way to reduce child marriages is to punish rape and sexual abuse, because (at least among the parents of child brides whom I have interviewed) the fear of such abuse is a major reason why parents marry off their daughters very early, before they can be raped. And that was also a factor in Nujood’s marriage at about age 11.
As the story of this dead Yemeni bride makes clear, there’s still a lot of work to be done.