We have all heard the horror stories of young girls being forced to marry much older men in arranged marriages in Muslim families. The terrible implications of that practice were made all too clear with the recent death of an 8- year- old girl who was forced to marry a 40 year old man in Yemen.
The girl, identified only as Rawan, lived in the tribal area of Hardh in northwestern Yemen near the border of Saudi Arabia. Her family had arranged the marriage to the man responsible for her death, which was caused by tearing of her genitals and a uterine rupture when he claimed his “spousal rights” on their wedding night. Activist in Kuwait have called for punitive actions against the family and the “husband”.
This is a tragedy that should never have happened. It is also unfortunately not all that uncommon in many parts of the world. We in this country have been conditioned to see this as a Muslim problem; however that is not entirely true. Studies have shown that in most cases poverty is a stronger driver of these arranged marriages than any religious dogma. Islam does allow for arranged marriage but does not require it, and nor does it condone the “selling” into marriage of young girls. In fact, Islamic religions do require the consent of those entering into an arranged marriage, although the requirement is often ignored. In the cultures where the practice is prevalent, daughters are seen as second class citizens and a burden on the family. If the family is living in poverty, it is an economic motivator that often moves the father to arrange a marriage, which will make the daughter the responsibility of another family.
In Yemen a law was passed in 2009 setting the minimum age for marriage at 17, but was repealed soon after when conservative lawmakers labeled it as “un-Islamic.” In Islam, as it is in Christianity, the term conservative actually often equates to “radical.” While the law should be reinstated it is not going to be much of a deterrent, as has been shown in other nations where there are laws to prevent the practice. In those countries, notably Afghanistan, the practice continues but it is hidden from the prying eyes of the government.
In Afghanistan somewhere between 60% and 80% of all marriages are forced, with about 16% of all children under the age of 15 being “sold” into these unions. In Yemen about 25% of young girls are forced into these arranged marriages before they reach the age of 15. There are similar numbers in most Asian and African nations. This is an atrocity that is not going to go away easily. It has been going on for centuries and in the case of the poverty stricken family it is seen as a matter of survival.
While nothing will bring back little Rawan or any of the other victims of this barbaric practice, the international community should act in concert to put an end to the practice worldwide. Ending it in one country because we do not like the way they conduct business will not make any difference in the overall problem. What can make a difference is the eradication of the dismal prospects for those in poverty stricken nations, and increased educational opportunities for people in those areas. That is a daunting objective and it cannot be achieved overnight ,but it will surely do more in the end than expressing indignity over the deaths of children such as this little girl ,and what amounts to sexual slavery to those who do survive the ordeal.
UPDATE: According to The Huffington Post, Yemen officials are denying the story. We’ll keep you posted.