by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux
I saw the headline “Yemeni girl, 12, dies in painful childbirth” in the gym this morning, and haven’t been able to get it out of my head all day. The story of Fawziya Ammodi, the girl in question, is terribly sad, and appalling on so many levels. Fawziya came from an impoverished family, and because of financial hardship was forced to drop out of school last year (she was in fourth grade) and married to a 24-year-old man. She died of severe bleeding on Monday, after a three-day labor. Her baby didn’t live.
Fawziya’s death brings up the dual issues of child brides, which are very common in Yemen (more than half of girls are married off before the age of 18), and the quality of maternal health care, not to mention limited birth control education and resources. Dr. Ana Langer, the president of EngenderHealth, has a great post up at HuffPo about how planning pregnancies can save women’s lives (she encourages all of us to contact our legislators about a spending increase in the FY10 Foreign Operations Bill – if you’re interested in learning more, check out this link).
And then we’re confronted with the horror of women who are forced to get married because of poverty, or because women are considered a burden to their family after a certain age. Regardless of conversations about the appropriate age for marriage in any society, I think we can all agree that 12-year-old girls should not be forced into sexual relationships with men twice their age. It’s unclear as to why Fawziya’s family encouraged (or forced) her to marry, but there are many, many circumstances where young women are essentially sold to older men. This was the case last year, when 10-year-old Nujood Ali escaped from her new husband, who raped her within weeks of the ceremony. In February, members of the Yemeni parliament tried to pass a law raising the minimum age for marriage to 17, but the initiative was blocked by hard-liners who argued that it violates Sharia law.
For me, the causes behind the tragedy of Fawziya’s death are very hard to pin down, mostly because there are so many. And I’m afraid that it’s going to be turned into yet another conversation about why Islam is bad for women, which is so often oversimplified. Obviously, the men who are using Sharia to block a minimum marriage age are propping up a patriarchal system where women can be bought and sold, but I don’t want the child bride issue to be the only thing that comes out of this conversation (although it definitely needs to be discussed). The horrible death of this little girl was also because of poor prenatal and maternal care, and an inability (or unwillingness) to access or use contraceptives. It was also because of her family’s extreme poverty that she was married in the first place. The forced marriage of young girls is a human rights abuse, and it’s really horrifying to think that there are more issues at play in Fawziya’s death. But I hope that more comes from this tragic, tragic event than a simple condemnation of extremists in the Yemeni government.