LETTER FROM YEMEN

In Yemen, plight of child brides endures

Arwa Elrabee, a gynecologist, speaks on the phone as Rihab al-Askari, 17, waits with her son, Haitham, 1. Askari's parents forced her into marriage at age 13. When that marriage failed, she was wed again, at 15.
Arwa Elrabee, a gynecologist, speaks on the phone as Rihab al-Askari, 17, waits with her son, Haitham, 1. Askari's parents forced her into marriage at age 13. When that marriage failed, she was wed again, at 15. (Sudarsan Raghavan/the Washington Post)
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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Saturday, December 5, 2009

SANAA, YEMEN -- Ayesha rested her head on the doctor's desk. She had removed her black veil, revealing a round face contorted in pain. She had married a 53-year-old man when she was 13. Now 15, she wanted her childhood back. She clutched her sides and groaned.

It was 3:30 p.m. in Arwa Elrabee's office. The gynecologist looked at Ayesha and shook her head. She knew Ayesha's pain was as much psychological as it was physical.

"I don't want to be married," Ayesha explained, her mother standing next to her.

"Why did you marry her off so early?" the doctor demanded. "Why didn't you allow her to continue her education?"

"It wasn't me. It was her father," Ayesha's mother replied. "He wanted to marry her off."

Yemen has no minimum age for marriage, and girls as young as 8 are often forced to wed. Many become mothers soon after they reach puberty. The country has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. The death of a 12-year-old in childbirth this fall highlighted the health risks.

Child brides and young mothers are the most vivid manifestations of how tribal doctrines prevail over modern attitudes in the Middle East's poorest country.

The only place many young women here can vent their frustrations is among other sympathetic women, such as Elrabee, a former deputy health minister who has tried to alter perceptions about early marriages.

"Hopefully, my life will get better, God willing," Ayesha said.

"Life. This is the life," said Elrabee, as she watched Ayesha and her mother leave, dark blurs floating through a tangle of other black-clad women.

4:35 p.m.

Rihab al-Askari entered the office. She was carrying her 1-year-old boy, Haitham, who wore bubble-gum-pink footed pajamas. At 13, Askari's impoverished parents had forced her to marry a 20-year-old man whose family had offered a handsome dowry.

"My parents told me, 'You will marry today.' They didn't accept that I was just a child," she recalled. "They made me feel happy with a new dress and some perfume. I was just a child. I was so happy. It was yellow, red and gold."


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