Noura Hussein made it clear that she didn't want to marry, especially not before she finished school. But when she was around 16, her parents forcibly initiated her marriage to a man twice her age.
Then, last year, when the Sudanese teenager fatally stabbed her husband as he tried to rape her, she was thrown in prison. In May, a sharia court sentenced her to death by hanging. But on Tuesday, an appeals court in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, overturned the decision and instead sentenced her to five years in prison and ordered her family to pay a fine to the husband's family.
The decision is a partial victory for human rights advocates who have shared her story widely over the past month, prompting international outrage and a social media campaign shared under the hashtag #JusticeForNoura. Although groups such as Amnesty International are celebrating that Hussein will not face the death penalty, Amnesty said the new sentence still constitutes “disproportionate punishment” and the teenager was acting in self-defense.
In a personal account Hussein provided CNN before the sentence was reduced, she said she had made clear that she did not want to marry the man and had even contemplated suicide. She recalled on the ninth day after the wedding last year, when she continuously refused to be touched by him, his family intervened.
“His uncle held me down by my legs and each of the other two held down my arms,” she said, referring to her husband's cousins. “He stripped and had me while I wept and screamed. Finally, they left the room. I was bleeding, I slept naked.”
Human rights advocates mounted a massive international campaign to draw attention to her case. Lawyers both in and outside Sudan, and activists with groups such as the Afrika Youth Movement, worked closely with Hussein in a bid to save her life. Some U.N. officials joined the calls to drop the death penalty for Hussein. In a joint statement in May, U.N. Women, the U.N. Population Fund and the U.N. Office of the Special Adviser on Africa asked the Sudanese government for clemency in her case. “Speaking as the voices of women and girls of the world, we plead with the government of Sudan to save the life of Hussein,” the groups wrote.
She has been held in a women's prison in the city of Omdurman since May 2017.
Her story has drawn attention to child marriage and marital rape in Sudan, where neither practice is considered a crime. Sudan ranks near the bottom in the U.N. Development Program’s Gender Inequality Index, which is based on income levels, political representation, reproductive health and other factors. The news agency Reuters reported that one in three Sudanese women marry before they turn 18.
Hussein, however, fought back against her parents' wishes. After she finished her school exams, the teenager ran away to live with a relative and avoid the final steps in the marriage. Her father eventually convinced her that she could come home safely. But in April 2017, her family tricked her into marrying the same man she had fled to avoid.
Then, some days later, her husband enlisted the help of his family members to rape her. Her attorney told the Associated Press that when the husband tried to rape Hussein again the next day, she pulled out a knife and stabbed him in self-defense.
Hussein hoped her family members would protect her, but they turned her in to police instead. She wound up being charged with premeditated murder and was later sentenced to be hanged. Now, after the appeals court ruling, she will serve five years instead.
“I was hoping to finish studying law and then marry,” Hussein told CNN. “My dream is to be a judge.”