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Child bride horrors last a lifetime

By Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
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Age 14 and already divorced in Yemen
  • Yemen parliament looking again at outlawing child marriage
  • Girl tells how at 11 she was forced to marry a 32-year-old cousin who raped her
  • Rights campaigner says the pain of a child marriage lasts until "the day of death"
  • Conservative parliamentarians blocked a previous attempt to ban child marriages

Sana'a, Yemen (CNN) -- Reem al Numeri is 14-years-old and recently divorced. She was 11 when she says her father forced her to marry a cousin more than twice her age.

Reem says she has been stigmatized by her divorce and now lives the life of an outcast. Without a husband or father to support her, she cannot attend school.

Her story has echoes of Nujood Ali -- the Yemeni girl whose story sparked an international outrage that many thought would force change in the country.

But a bill to outlaw child marriages got blocked and the practice continues. On Saturday, Yemen's parliament will look again at child marriage.

Reem's desperate pleas to stay a child fell on deaf ears as her father forced her to marry a 32-year-old cousin. "He said you need to go into the room where the judge is and tell him you agree to the marriage," Reem said. "I said I won't go in there - he took out his dagger and said he'd cut me in half if I didn't go in there and agree."

For Reem, the terror and the trauma were just beginning. She said she was told to sleep with her husband, but refused. She locked herself in a bedroom every night to ensure her safety but, according to Reem, he managed to sneak in and raped her.

Reem said members of her family first ordered her to submit, then expected her to celebrate. "They chose not to buy me any bridal dresses until they were sure I'd had sex with him because they didn't want their money to go to waste," she said. "Once they were sure, they bought me the bridal clothes and threw me a party. After that, I burned the white bridal dress I was given and then I used a razor to try to kill myself." Reem's father and ex-husband did not return CNN's calls.

In Yemen, a deeply tribal society, the issue of child marriages is a complicated one.

Two years ago, 10-year-old Nujood Ali shocked the world when she took herself to court in Yemen's capital city of Sana'a and asked a judge for a divorce.

After a well publicized trial, she was granted one -- and became a heroine to those trying to shine a spotlight on the issue of child brides in Yemen, where more than half of all young girls are married before age 18, mostly to older men.

In 2009, Yemen's parliament passed legislation raising the minimum age of marriage to 17. But conservative parliamentarians argued the bill violated Sharia, or Islamic law, which does not stipulate a minimum age of marriage.

And because of a parliamentary maneuver the bill was never signed into law.

More than 100 leading religious clerics called the attempt to restrict the age of marriage "un-Islamic".

Mohammed Aboulahoum, who advises Yemen's president, said the law should be passed, but he added the fight against child marriage restrictions were a distraction -- a way for the parliament to avoid bigger, more sensitive, political issues.

"I think there should be an age limit," Aboulahoum said. "And if you sit even with the religious people and you ask them, would you let your daughter marry at the age of 12 or 13, they would tell you no. So it is something, we use it more for politics."

Reem's attorney, Shada Nasser, is one of Yemen's most well known advocates for children's rights.

Nasser has represented several child brides seeking divorce, including Ali. She doesn't even think the practice should be called marriage. "I think it is rape," she said.

But Nasser also has hope that Reem's generation will help build a new Yemen, free of child marriages.

"Who can build this Yemen?" asked Nasser. "Me? No - all these small girls -- they must build Yemen. But all these girls need a good law - a family law." Nasser begs the clerics standing in the way: "I ask them to give these girls mercy."

A prominent Yemeni human rights activist, Amal Albasha, is also outraged the practice continues. Her organization, Sisters Arab Forum, tries to intervene on behalf of child brides, to stop the marriages from taking place. Albasha added that nothing will change until people in Yemen try to fully understand the horror a child bride goes through.

"You know, just two days ago, a 9-year-old girl got married in Taiz." she said. "Just think about the pain, the fear -- just think about a 9-year-old with a 50-year-old in a closed room," said Albasha. "The experience remains until the day of death."