DUBAI, UAE, Sept. 14, 2009— -- After days of struggling through labor a 12-year-old "child bride" has died in Yemen, her baby a stillborn.
Fawziyah Abdullah Youssef was married last year at the age of 11 to a 24-year-old. In a custom that is common in Yemen, her parents pulled her from school so that she could be given to her betrothed.
"Families think child marriage is a good thing…that it comes directly from Islam. They don't understand the dangers," Ahmad Al-Qureishi of Seyaj, a Yemeni children's rights group, tells ABC News.
The dangers are apparent in statistic gathered by the United Nations. Yemen has a high maternal death rate of 430 women per 100,000 births – more than 20 times that of its neighbor, Saudi Arabia -- and is in the top 50 countries ranked for high infant mortality.
Most of the maternal deaths are for early pregnancy, according to UNICEF.
"It's a deeply embedded social habit. For every one child marriage we can stop there are five more," said Naseem Rehman, a UNICEF spokesman in Yemen's capital of Sana'a.
Rehman says child brides in Yemen face a "triple disadvantage," having to cope with a lost childhood, a pregnancy their bodies aren't ready to handle, and often forced to give birth at home, far from any health facility.
An estimated 50 percent of women in Yemen are married before age 18, some as young as eight. In recent years Yemen's civil society and women's rights activists have pushed back against the practice, which is prevalent in what has long been the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula.
Calls For New Law
In February Yemen's parliament passed a child marriages law setting a minimum age of 17, but it has yet to be enacted. The bill has long been challenged by conservative lawmakers who say it would contradict the laws of Islam.
The law also challenges rural and tribal customs. Marriages are often arranged by parents to serve the family's interests; a child marriage can bring a dowry payment, and relieves a household from having to feed one more child.
Earlier this year Seyaj, the children's rights group, documented the case of Rahmanah Ali Al Shayef, 10, whose father traded her hand in marriage in exchange for a bride for his son. When a local official refused to issue the marriage contract because of the bride's young age, Al Shayef's father took her to another district, where the marriage officer was more compliant.
The issue of child marriage in Yemen rose to prominence in 2007 after an 8-year-old bride, Nojoud Ali, was granted a divorce from her abusive husband.
At the time her lawyer, Shatha Nasser, told ABC News that the young girl left her home and walked to the local court, asking staff there for help. They put her in touch with Nasser, who handles cases of abuse against women and children, and the two successfully fought for an annulment.
Together they were honored by Glamour Magazine's Woman of the Year Award in 2008; Nojoud Ali has since been banned from traveling outside of Yemen.
Since then human rights activists have stepped up their efforts, led by Yemeni women and civil society groups.
"We have young girls speaking out against the practice, which injures the child, the family, and the community," said Rehman of UNICEF.
Abolishing child marriage, he says, "is an idea whose time has come."