The many problems afflicting the poor can be heralded as stemming primarily from economic lack. But not all issues are due to economic constraint nor because a lack of formal education. I have found great wisdom, ingenuity and kindness amongst the poor. But the poor are no different than any other demographic when it comes to the need for governmental provision of solutions for heart-rending societal tragedy.
It is hard for any of us to examine our history, culture and family to determine the small adjustments which need to be made to bless our future generations. But when little girls die due to cultural acceptance of child brides, it is time for all of us to join hands. This scenario should not be allowed to play out again. The recently publicized case of the death of a child bride occurred in Yemen. Rawan, an eight year old girl, died from injuries sustained during sexual intercourse with an older man. Hemorrhage, a ruptured vaginal vault, perforated uterus and peritonitis seem probable. Rawan undoubtedly suffered excruciating pain related to her injuries. Wince now. Let’s discuss this issue.
Cross-pollination of ideas is the beginning point for an endpoint of measurable outcomes. We need policies which will shepherd the people to a place of understanding regarding the line between childhood and adulthood. Maturity is the benchmark for marriage.
Reaching for a selection on my bookshelf, I opened a copy of “The Arab of the Desert: A Glimpse into Badawin Life in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia,” written by H.R.P. Dickson. It was first published in 1949. I consider myself lucky to have the second edition, which still has a minimally damaged dust cover. The selection examines tribal customs. It is quite detailed and one of the loveliest of books in my library. Chapter VIII is dedicated to the topic of marriage and divorce. But prior to quoting the words of the author, let me note that the dedication is “with affection and respect to my friend His Highness Shaikh Sir Ahmad al Jabir al Sabah, K.C.S.I., K.C.I.E, distinguished Ruler of Kuwait and staunch supporter of Great Britain in the Persian Gulf and Arabia.”
The aforementioned is noted for a reason. When the western journalists write to seek policy change for societal health, they can be cast as Islamophobic. That imprint is not on the author’s page, nor my own writing. My imprint is for healthy policy. So let me quote a bit regarding tribal custom. It will serve as a diving board into a pool of thought.
“The marriage laws among the Badawin tribes in Arabia are simple in the extreme…. First-cousin marriage is the invariable rule. A girl belongs of right to the son of her father’s brother (‘ibn dm) unless he expressly renounces the right to marry her…. If a girl refuses to be wedded to her ibn ‘dm, he may slay her without becoming liable to pay blood money in compensation.”
Laws which are simple in the extreme…. This is the nature of tribal laws. They are understood by all and passed down by oral tradition. They are anchored in an honor code which can be as beautiful as the henna on a bride’s hands or as deadly as an unsheathed dagger.
Rawan was a Yemeni child who found herself married, and then quickly buried, because of tribal custom. There is a Hadith that a virgin gives her consent (for marriage) by her silence. Rawan was a silent partner in her own death. What eight-year old can even find a voice to protest her predicament when an older man seeks her as a nubile sexual prize? The price for her life? It is a dowry.
National policies which flow from centralized governance require simple and gently-applied solutions which interface with cultural complexities. The customs surrounding dowry and marriage as a means for income or to cement political loyalties of men are as old as the history of written man. Where are the solutions?
It is interesting that Chapter IX of “The Arab of the Desert” is titled, “Women’s Secrets”. And perhaps it is within the world of women that answers must be sought. The men may hold the outward signs of power. But it is the women who retain the internal locus of control over the secrets harbored by the community. This flow of information is also a form of power which can be harnessed when seeking societal adjustments for the betterment of little girls.
Hooria Mashhour, Yemen’s Human Rights minister has the right idea. “Many child marriages take place every year in Yemen. It’s time to end this practice.” But from speech to actual socio metric outcomes is an uphill battle in nations such as Yemen. In 2009, Yemen’s parliament passed legislation increasing the minimum age of marriage to seventeen. But hidebound members of parliament reduced the measure to sentiment with their political obstinence against what is essentially a women’s health issue.
Rawan is dead. But the women of Yemen know exactly how many of their young daughters are being married to older men. It is the women who hold this secret in their hands. There is no need to raise awareness. Women are very much aware of what is happening in their communities. Ask them!
So it is the women who must be sought out. Provide them with a platform for a communal forum. Let their voices be heeded when considering policies which benefit little girls. There is no braver person to take up the defense of a daughter than the mother who gave her birth. It is the mothers who must be given the right and legal avenue to be “first responders” against pressure to give their young daughters in marriage.
Policies must be directed toward empowering women in their role as advocates against child marriage. Public resources are needed to bring about these desirable changes. What appear to be draconian policies will merely drive the practice underground. The women and their secrets, their role in advocacy, is pivotal.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org