WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Yemeni government Wednesday defended its efforts to end the practice of young girls marrying, citing last week's death during childbirth of a 12-year-old Yemeni.
In a statement this week, UNICEF director Ann Veneman assailed the "deplorable" violations of children's rights.
"Over the years, the government of Yemen has embarked on an awareness campaign to end the practice of young marriages, which has been deeply rooted in the rural cultures of Yemen," said Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman in Washington for the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen, in a written statement.
The Yemeni parliament tried in February to pass a law that would have set the minimum marriage age at 17, but conservative parliamentarians kept it from reaching the president by arguing it violates sharia, or Islamic law, which does not stipulate a minimum age.
"Unfortunately, prior to the ratification of the amendments by the Honorable President Ali Abdullah Saleh, members of the conservative bloc in the Parliament have rescinded the proposed amendments to allow for further deliberations," he said. "It is anticipated that the matter will be finalized in the near future, and it is deemed an important priority of the government."
He said the Ministry of Health has sought to establish emergency labor clinics in rural villages "with the aim of reducing infant and maternity mortality."
"Child marriages violate the rights of children in the most deplorable way," Ann M. Veneman, executive director of the United Nations Children Fund, said in a statement Monday.
"The younger the girl is when she becomes pregnant, the greater the health risks for her and her baby. Girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.
"When they're pushed into marriage, they are pushed into early pregnancy," UNICEF spokesman Naseem ur-Rehman said this week by phone from Yemen. "And then, in a system and environment where the health facilities [are] so poor ... this is a recipe for disaster.
"It's like pushing our children into the trap of death, knowing[ly]."
The girl, Fawziya Ammodi, struggled for three days in labor before dying Friday of bleeding, said the Seyaj Organization for the Protection of Children. Her baby also died in childbirth, according to the children's rights group.
"Although the cause of her death was lack of medical care, the real cause was the lack of education in Yemen and the fact that child marriages keep happening," said Seyaj President Ahmed al-Qureshi.
Born into an impoverished family in Hodeidah, Fawziya was forced to drop out of school and was married off last year to a 24-year-old man, al-Qureshi said.
Child brides are commonplace in Yemen, especially on the Red Sea coast, where tribal customs hold sway. Hodeidah is the fourth-largest city in Yemen and an important port.
More than half of Yemeni girls are married off before the age of 18 -- many times to older men, some of whom are already married, a study by Sanaa University found.
While it was not clear why Fawziya's parents married her off, reasons for such actions typically vary.
Sometimes, financially strapped parents offer up their daughters for dowries. Once married, the girls are no longer a financial or moral burden to their parents. And often, parents will extract a promise from the husband to wait until the girl is older to consummate the marriage.
The issue of Yemeni child brides came to the forefront in 2008 with Nujood Ali, then 10 years of age. She was pulled out of school and married to a man who beat and raped her within weeks of the ceremony.
To escape, Nujood hailed a taxi -- for the first time in her life -- and was taken across town to the central courthouse, where she demanded to see a judge. After a well-publicized trial, she was granted a divorce.
CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report
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