Mohammed Jamjoom and Hakim Almasmari, (CNN) — The story was horrific: An 8-year-old girl died from internal injuries suffered on her wedding night with a 40-year-old man. It caused outrage — and numerous calls to end child marriage in Yemen.
Authorities have denied the claims, saying she was neither married nor injured, and they held a news conference and paraded a girl they claimed was “Rawan,” accompanied by a man they described as her father.
Despite the conflicting reports between local residents and government officials, some say, the story sheds light on the issue of child marriage.
“We do not want the government’s denial on this case to halt the international efforts to pressure the Yemeni government to end child marriage,” said Hooria Mashhour, Yemen’s human rights minister. “The efforts need to continue until a law is passed to end this practice.”
“The story of Rawan was completely fabricated. After investigating, we came to a conclusion that she was alive and healthy,” said Mosleh Ezzi, head of prosecution in the northern town of Haradh, where the incident reportedly happened.
“She attended the press conference with her father and friends who all supported her in these tough times,” Ezzi told CNN, adding that “medical tests proved that Rawan is still a virgin and was never married.”
Yemeni national security chief Ali Hassan Al-Ahmadi said he directed local authorities to find the girl and identify her.
“I can ensure that she had indeed suffered no harm,” Al-Ahmadi said.
When reports emerged last week that she 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 controversial issue of child marriage in the nation, where the practice is still legal.
Residents told local media that Rawan died of internal bleeding, believed to be the result of sexual intercourse that tore her uterus and other organs.
But confusion surrounded the case from the start, with residents telling CNN that she had died, while officials insisted she was alive and well.
Mashhour, the human rights minister, said growing anger over the case presents an opportunity to enact laws to end child marriage in the nation once and for all.
She said the push has faced many hurdles.
“Unfortunately, many factions in the government today are fighting our efforts to end child marriage, and that is why international pressure is needed,” she said.
Yemeni child rights advocate Ahmed Al-Qureshi, who’d investigated the case for more than two weeks, said that while no evidence showed Rawan had been married and had died, child marriage remains a crisis in the nation.
“This case was fabricated, but many other cases of child marriage are true and tragic,” Al-Qureshi said.
In deeply tribal and conservative Yemen, the issue of child marriage is complicated.
Human Rights Watch says more than half of all young girls there are married before age 18. About 14% are married before age 15. Many Yemenis say they are forced to sell off their girls to older, wealthier men.
When reports of Rawan’s case began making headlines, the group issued a statement urging Yemen to protect girls by setting 18 as the legal minimum age for marriage.
“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,” Human Rights Watch said.
Yemen should step in to end the practice, the group said.
“Thousands of Yemeni girls have their childhood stolen and their futures destroyed because they are forced to marry too young,” said Liesl Gerntholtz from Human Rights Watch. “The Yemeni government should end this abusive practice.”
In 2009, the Yemeni 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. 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 past few years, several Yemeni child bride cases have left the world stunned.
In 2008, Nujood Ali, 10, became an international sensation when she went to a Sanaa court and asked a judge for a divorce. After a highly publicized trial, she was granted one.
Two years later, 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, a video of Nada Al-Ahdal, 11, accusing her parents of trying to marry her off in exchange for money, was uploaded to YouTube and quickly went viral.
Her parents denied the story, and children’s rights activists questioned the veracity of her claims. But the video was still viewed by millions of people.