Sanaa, Yemen (CNN) — Yemen’s human rights minister wants child marriage outlawed after an 8-year-old girl reportedly died of internal injuries that she suffered on her wedding night.
When reports emerged last week that a girl named Rawan, from the northern Yemeni town of Haradh, died a few days after being married off to a 40-year-old man, Yemenis were horrified.
International outrage quickly grew, as the alleged incident highlighted once again the extremely controversial issue of child marriage in Yemen — a country where the practice is still legal.
Residents of Haradh told local media outlets that Rawan’s cause of death was internal bleeding, believed to be the result of sexual intercourse that tore her uterus and other organs.
Local officials, however, have denied the story is true.
Amidst the numerous claims and counterclaims, Hooria Mashhour, Yemen’s human rights minister, has declared enough is enough — telling CNN that the growing anger over Rawan’s case has presented Yemen with an opportunity to finally do the right thing.
“This isn’t the first time a child marriage has happened in Yemen, so we should not focus only on this case,” Mashhour said.
“Many child marriages take place every year in Yemen. It’s time to end this practice.”
“I personally have (talked to) the human rights coordinator for the ministry on the ground in Haradh,” said Mashhour, “and he informed me that nearly everyone he spoke to is denying the story, but he feels strongly suspicious. We feel people may be hiding information due to fear.”
CNN spoke with several locals who requested anonymity, as they feared possible reprisals. Many said they’d been ordered to stop discussing the case with the media, insisting officials there were actively downplaying what had happened.
“No one is talking about this story because its an embarrassment,” said one resident, “but this is what poverty can do to people.”
Many Yemenis say they are forced to sell off their girls to older, wealthier men.
Mohammed Ahmed, head of Haradh’s police department, called the reports “baseless.”
“Residents heard this story from one another and it spread very quickly, like a rumor,” Ahmed said — adding that Rawan’s father had been called into the town’s police station for questioning and had denied the incident.
“When he came to us he brought a little girl with him who he said was Rawan to prove his case, and they were both photographed together by the police,” Ahmed said.
Yemeni child rights advocate Ahmed Al-Qureshi told CNN he’s been investigating the case for more than a week and there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding what exactly happened. He’s demanding more transparency from officials.
“The government is informing us that the Rawan is in their custody and still alive, while other local sources are saying that she was secretly buried,” said Al-Qureshi, who heads up Seyaj, one of Yemen’s leading children’s rights groups.
“The government is refusing to allow us to visit the girl in their custody,” he said. “The evidence we have now cannot prove that Rawan was killed, and that is why we need the government’s cooperation.”
In Yemen, deeply tribal and conservative, the issue of child marriage is an extremely complicated one. According to rights group Human Rights Watch , more than half of all young girls there are married before age 18. About 14% of girls in Yemen are married before age 15.
In the wake of Rawan’s case, the group issued a statement urging Yemen to “protect its girls from the devastating effects of early marriage by setting 18 as the minimum age for marriage by law.”
HRW added that “the current political transition and drafting process for a new constitution offer a unique opportunity for the Yemeni government to enact laws protecting the rights of girls.”
“Thousands of Yemeni girls have their childhood stolen and their futures destroyed because they are forced to marry too young,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, HRW’s women’s rights director. “The Yemeni government should end this abusive practice.”
In 2009, Yemen’s parliament passed legislation raising the minimum age of marriage to 17. But conservative parliamentarians argued the bill violated Islamic law, which does not stipulate a minimum age of marriage, and the bill was never signed.
Activist groups and politicians are still trying change the law, but more than 100 leading religious clerics have said restricting the age of marriage is “un-Islamic.”
Over the last few years, several Yemeni child bride cases have emerged that have shocked the world.
In 2008, 10-year-old Nujood Ali became a heroine to Yemeni girls and an international sensation when she went to a court in Sanaa and asked a judge for a divorce. After a highly publicized trial, she was granted one.
In 2010, a 12-year-old Yemeni bride died of internal bleeding following intercourse three days after she was married off to an older man, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Over the summer, an 11-year-old Yemeni girl named Nada Al-Ahdal became an internet sensation when a video of her accusing her parents of trying to marry her off in exchange for money was uploaded to YouTube and quickly went viral. While her parents denied Nada’s story, and child rights activists questioned the veracity of her claims, the video was still viewed by millions of people.
Despite repeated attempts, CNN has been unable to reach Rawan’s father for comment.