Yemen's child brides and a girl named Rawan
Young girls shield their faces as they beg on the streets of Sanaa, Yemen, August 2009. MICHELLE SHEPHARD/ TORONTO STAR
The story of an 8-year-old Yemeni girl named Rawan who reportedly died on her wedding night of internal injuries has ignited the debate about child brides once again in Yemen.
The story may not be true, and that may not matter.
The fact that it could have happened underscores the horror of child marriages in the impoverished country where families say they are forced to sell their daughters as brides to wealthy older men.
This issue is not new. Nujood Ali famously went to a Sanaa court to ask for a divorce in 2008. She was 10 years old. With the help of Le Figaro writer Delphine Minoui, she later wrote a book about her story: I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced.
Human rights organizations have covered this issue and specific cases in various reports over the years, but changing the law, and perhaps more importantly, the cultural acceptance of this practice has proved difficult.
Marrying children is still legal in Yemen, although most Yemenis were horrified by reports of Rawan's death and embarrassed their country was making headlines again for such an issue.
In 2009, a law was introduced that raised the minimum age of marriage to 17 but before it was passed conservative parliamentarians and religious leaders managed to argue the legislation was "unIslamic."
In the wake of last week's report on Rawan, Yemen's Human Rights Minister has taken up the fight. Hooria Mashhour is calling on parliament once again to raise the minimum age.
Sorting fact from fiction is often difficult in Yemen, which is why the story of Rawan remains unclear. Gulf News correspondent Saeed Al-Batati travelled to the northern Yemeni town of Haradh to investigate the story.
He found that local residents confirm the incident, saying she had been forced to marry a 40-year-old Saudi man and died after sexual intercourse on their wedding night. The girl's father and security officials deny the claim. (Al-Batati writes that a security officer with the Haradh Criminal Investigation was present during his interview with Rawan's father).
The facts may never be entirely clear.
But as Minister Mashhour said to CNN, "This isn't the first time a child marriage has happened in Yemen, so we should not focus only on this case . . . Many child marriages take place every year in Yemen. It's time to end this practice."
Michelle Shephard is the Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recipient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm