12-year-old Yemeni girl dies in childbirth

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.

12 comments for “12-year-old Yemeni girl dies in childbirth

  1. September 14, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    This story is horrid, and makes me sick through and through. It is important to bring this kind of atrocity to girls to light, no matter how hard it is to stomach.

  2. September 14, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    This is so, so fucked up. This absolutely makes me hate everyone and everything.

    I hope I can channel that energy in a positive way– make it just a little less likely that this will ever happen again.

    But right now I just feel hateful and lethargic.

  3. not so
    September 14, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    you’re wrong. this isnt about maternal health. this little girl wasn’t a mother. nor should she ever have been. she was a sexual slave to a man who bought her. if she had survived, she’d have been a slave, not a mother. what you are suggesting abouts to ‘better healthcare for slaves’ which isnt the point. the point is why are young girls slaves in these places? And to try and pretend this isn’t connected with Islam is crazy. This happened BECAUSE of Islam.

    It is a women’s rights issue. not poverty. and not maternal healthcare.

    It’s sort of repulsive to suggest that Yemen get better materalcare so that men can keep their sex slaves for longer. gross

  4. September 15, 2009 at 5:27 am

    I first saw this terribly sad story reported on HuffPo in this piece http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20090912/ml-yemen-child-marriage/ and also wondered why this specific case was deemed worthy of news at a time when we know that “Figures released in October 2007 jointly by UNFPA, WHO, UNICEF and The World Bank reveal that women continue to die of pregnancy-related causes at a rate of about one a minute.”.

    It is always good to see a single case with a name being reported as it means so much more than a statistic, but I also came to the conclusion that the only reason that the death of Fawziya Ammodi was being reported was as a stick to beat Islam. Don’t get me wrong, I too find many aspects of Sharia law are obscene towards women, but it seems to me that the only way they will be countered is by enabling a full education for all thereby empowering women and girls to know their rights as human beings, and also to counter and question the misogony that boys and men grow up with as the absolute norm.

    Thanks for posting the link to Dr. Ana Langer’s piece – she focuses on developing countries, which is very worthy and absolutely necessary, but I won’t hold my breath that the G8 will do anything to help women. I was pleased to see that EngenderHealth have an office in the US as I do read of many strange forms of sex education and reproduction control which are (as yet) alien to what I see here in the UK. And the simple fact that birth control is dependent on income is also alien as it is free in the UK. Obviously the UK also fails in areas of sex education and access to healthcare too!

    You are right – there are many varied discussions that can come from this tragic story and I could go on and on…

  5. September 15, 2009 at 5:33 am

    I meant to mention Chansa Kabwela, the Zambian journalist, who is in court right now on charges of obsenity for highlighting the horrors of childbirth during a recent strike. She emailing authorities a picture of a woman denied access to health care who suffered a terrible birth in which the child died. If you want to read more then The Post http://www.postzambia.com/index.php?searchword=chansa+kabwela&option=com_search&Itemid= (Kabwela’s paper) is covering the case. It is worth noting that The Post is one of the few papers which isn’t in the pocket of the Zambian authorities which leaves it’s journalists very vulnerable.

  6. September 15, 2009 at 5:33 am

    btw, Zambia is a prodominatly a Christian country, not a Muslim one.

  7. LSG
    September 15, 2009 at 10:03 am

    earwicga, I’m glad you brought up the possible Islamaphobia that could be motivating some of the press coverage of Fawziya’s death (I DON’T think the coverage of her death is unwarranted, at all, and I do think that the religious elements should be acknowledged, I’m just thinking about how many women who die in childbirth are NOT thought to warrant new stories). It reminds me, a little painfully, of how much the media acted like they cared about Afghani women, then promptly forgot about them once the oppressors weren’t synonymous with the people we wanted to see as The Bad Guys.

    I actually wrote about Zambia’s/Chansa Kabwela’s situation on Equal Writes last week — http://equalwrites.blogspot.com/2009/09/pain-and-porn-zambian-news-editor-on.html — so I’ve been thinking about it a lot and the variances in coverage of this story and that one, and how we should best address issues surrounding maternal and infant mortality. Naturally, they’re not at all the same situation, but I was wondering if the difference between Muslim country and Christian country made a difference. It seems there could be a racist element, too — a Middle Eastern girl who dies in childbirth being viewed as a delicate, exotic flower and stirs up outrage, while Sub-Saharan African girls dying in childbirth is largely ignored.

    Amelia, I’m so glad you wrote about this — I read about it yesterday morning and felt sick all day. Especially after reading and writing about the horrifying situation in Zambia I didn’t have the emotional energy to even process it, let alone write. Thank you, too, for including the link to the Foreign Operations Bill — I often feel completely helpless in the face of situations like this, given their religious, economic, cultural, and diplomatic complexities. Supporting family planning seems like a positive, constructive step — I’m going to read more about it and probably call my Congressman’s office.

  8. September 15, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    @ not so says – you are absolutely right! It is about poverty – material poverty and educational poverty.

    I don’t agree however with your statement “This happened BECAUSE of Islam”. To me , it is not about Islam. Islamic countries were some of the most enlightened in the world in times past. It is about the way that Islamic countries are governed – I think this is a distinct difference. And when I find out more and more about how repressive and fundamentalist regimes were financed and supported (and still are) by countries such as the UK and the US it makes me despair.

  9. September 15, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    @LSG I agree – the coverage is not unwaranted – I was thinking along the same lines as you. I am glad you have posted about Chansa Kabwela’s case. I was planning on doing so and have read a lot about it and about Zambia – of which I had absolutely no knowledge, but just haven’t got round to it yet.

    And yes, using the excuse of liberating Afghan women is just sick, especially after we funded and armed the Taliban!

  10. Bagelsan
    September 16, 2009 at 1:57 am

    To earwicga: I certainly don’t think this is “because” of Islam either. Islam is just being used as a tool by men who want this sort of thing to happen; without Islam they’d just use another tool.

  11. September 16, 2009 at 3:27 am


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