09.20.134:45 AM ET

Yemen's Child Bride Mystery

Did an eight-year-old Yemeni girl die from internal bleeding on her wedding night, or is little Rawan alive, well and unmarried? Vivian Salama on the conflicting reports coming out of Yemen's remote provinces.

It remains a mystery whether an eight-year old Yemeni girl named Rawan is in custody or if she is dead, her body secretly buried and covered up. Reports emerged last week that she died from internal bleeding after sexual intercourse with her 40-year-old husband on the night of their wedding in the northeastern province of Hajja.

Her story is not unlike that of many young girls in Yemen—pulled out of school to be married for a fee to an older man, often then forced to have sex and endure abuse, both physical and emotional. Yet after her death was widely reported by local and foreign press, questions surrounding the validity of the story quickly began to emerge. The local government said last week it was investigating the death of a newly-wedded child, but recanted on Tuesday, presenting local reporters with an eight-year old girl named Rawan—alive, unwed, and sharing her dreams of becoming a doctor.

It’s a story baffling many in Yemen, but one that has sparked international outrage, thrusting the controversial practice of child marriage back into the spotlight as Yemen prepares to draft its first constitution since the 2011 popular uprising. A number of government officials are now demanding an overhaul of the country’s laws to better protect the rights of women and young girls.

“We have been suggesting for more than 10 years to fix the minimum marriage age at 18 in the Personal Status Law, but we faced too much resistance from radicals and extremists who believe women can marry at any age,” Hooriah Mashhoor, Yemen’s Minister of Human Rights, said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Since our 2011 revolution, women have become leaders in this society. We are really speaking out and nobody can ignore us anymore.”

In this conservative tribal society where more than 45 percent live on less than $2 a day, many families opt to marry their young daughters to alleviate the financial burden of feeding an extra mouth. Some are married for a fee. In the more remote villages, young brides are a hard-to-break tradition, and in the absence of birth records in much of the country, a minimum marriage age may be impossible to enforce.

According to a 2006 survey by the Yemeni government and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 14 percent of girls in Yemen are married before the age of 15, and 52 percent are married before 18. A 2005 study by Sana’a University noted that in some rural areas girls as young as eight are married. Citing religious grounds, Yemen’s parliament abolished Article 15 of Yemen’s Personal Status Law in 1999, which set the minimum age for marriage for boys and girls at 15. Conservative lawmakers argued that a ban might lead to “the spread of immorality,” undermine “family values,” and would be contrary to Islamic law.

The only protection offered under article 15 of the Personal Status Law is the prohibition on sexual intercourse until girls reach puberty. But in alleged case of Rawan and many like her, prohibition does not ensure protection.

“If you make a law it will not stop a tradition—especially in Yemen, where the police are basically nonexistent in some parts of the country,” said Sama’a Al-Hamdani, an independent Yemeni analyst and writer. “You don’t have the luxury to be a teenager in Yemen: you are a child, and then you are an adult."

When 10-year old Nujood Ali became the youngest woman in Yemen to divorce her husband, her story reverberated across the country after it emerged that she was repeatedly raped and beaten by her husband, a man in his 30s. One day, not long after she was married, she gained the courage to discuss her case with a judge. She was granted a divorce, but forced to repay her husband $200. He was never prosecuted for the abuse.

While some like Mashhoor argue that women are gaining ground in the fight for greater rights, others feel that social programs are the best option for these women.

“If the government wanted to change the laws then it would have done it a long time ago. They need to set realistic goals. They should deliver on promises to provide better health care to women at that age and give legal rights to wives since marital rape is not recognized,” said Al-Hamdani. “The only way you can stop it is to provide financial incentives for these families not to marry their daughters off—because that’s why it’s happening.”