Elham was a bride who got married against her will, just like many others in places where women’s rights are not protected. Like many others, she was forced to have sex with a man who considered her as his property. Like many others she died after what we can safely call a “rape” due to the injuries she suffered.
Unlike most other brides, though, Elham was just a child, a very unlucky one whose only fault was that of being born a woman in a country where girls can be given to men as their wives at the age of 12.
This is how old this Yemeni girl was when she was taken to hospital some months ago after her first sexual intercourse with a man caused her an acute bleeding which doctors were not able to stop.
I had read about Elham in April, when this sad story was brought to public attention by human rights NGOs and the media. Back then, Yemen’s government was trying to get approval for a draft law to set the minimum age for marriage at 17 for women. This proposal, though, raised protests among the conservative sector of the Yemeni society, including a large number of women backed by Islamic extremists.
This picture, portraying a group of Yemeni women who were brave enough to take the street only to make it clear that they wanted their daughters to be able to marry at an early age, was published by an online newspaper along with Elham’s story.
A couple of days ago another picture reminded me of this one. It was printed on an invitation to an exhibition of graphic panels on child exploitation and abuse by the Italian artist Stefania Spanò.
Although I am not sure this is what Spanò had in mind when she drew this image, I referred it to young girls being victims of the gender inequality their own mothers are unable to challenge and I found it very effective.
Yemen is probably a perfect example of how poverty and illiteracy keep women trapped in a spiral of injustice and violence, to the point that even mothers are not able to recognize when their own daughters are being abused.
This is not surprising considering the huge gender gap the country still suffers when it comes to education.
The government may have been unable to impose a law protecting children against early marriages, but I was relieved to know the issue of gender inequality is being addressed at its basis by a World Bank sponsored plan promoting girls’ enrolment in schools.
According to an article published by the UN humanitarian news agency IRIN, based on Yemeni government sources enrolment rates for girls have increased by almost 9 per cent in rural areas where parents were given financial support as an incentive to send their daughters to school.
This was part of a 2-year plan aimed at reaching a female literacy rate of 90 per cent by the end of 2010 and 95 per cent by 2015.
While these targets may sound ambitious, this plan is probably focusing on the right issue. And its first outcomes are good enough to give hope back to those who support children and women’s rights in the country.
For those who may be interested: this and 16 other panels by Stefania Spanò are being displayed in an exhibition called UNCHILDREN, open to the public until June 30 in Rome’s Sala Santa Rita. The event is promoted by child charity Terre des Hommes.