News / Middle East

In Yemen, 12-year-old Girl Finally Gets Divorce

Sally al-Sahabi, 12, and her father enter the police station, hoping that having her husband arrested will pressure him into granting her a divorce
Sally al-Sahabi, 12, and her father enter the police station, hoping that having her husband arrested will pressure him into granting her a divorce

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Heather Murdock

In Yemen, it is legal and common for young girls to marry fully-grown men. But a growing activist movement trying to abolish the practice won a small victory Saturday, when 12-year-old Sally al-Sahabi was granted a divorce from her 26-year-old husband.

Sally's little brother held some of the many television mics in the packed, sweltering courthouse Saturday. Activists and journalists crowded around the table where a judge questioned her and her husband, Nabil al-Marshahi. After four months of begging her husband and petitioning human rights groups, Sally was finally getting her divorce.

Anti-child-bride activists looked jubilant when the judge pronounced the couple divorced. But Shadda Nasser, Sally's lawyer later said that the only reason the divorce went through was because Nabil had requested it. Sally was beaten and raped as a 10-year-old bride, but her December 2009 petition for divorce had failed.

Nasser says this divorce is a win for a growing movement in Yemen to end the practice of early marriage. A law that would make 17 the minimum age for marriage in Yemen has been languishing in parliamentary committees for over a year now, and is expected to be voted on again in the coming weeks.

"I am very happy because Sally, now she is free. And I am happy because I have new evidence for the parliament and President Saleh to look again for this law, and to help all the children in Yemen," said the lawyer.

Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and his ruling party support the law. There is a considerable amount of international pressure for it to get it passed. Even though it won a majority of votes in parliament last year, it still faces powerful opposition from leading sheiks, who call the measure un-Islamic, and a bow to Western cultural imperialism.

Early this week, hundreds of women demonstrated in Yemen's capital, demanding the law be passed. In late February, about 1,000 children marched in front parliament, carrying signs that said, "Our future is in your hands," and wearing T-shirts that said "No to early marriage." The children presented a petition with 60,000 signatures in support of the law.

Nujood Ali, now 11, divorced her 30-year-old husband last year using a similar strategy as Sally. Both husbands were thrown in jail on trumped-up charges by sympathetic authorities, and released after they promised to file for divorce.

Nujood, who regularly appears at anti-child marriage rallies, says when she grows up, she wants to be a lawyer to help other little girls escape her fate. She and Sally have been featured in international news. But Nujood says most of Yemen's child brides still suffer behind closed doors and black veils.

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