Forced to marry at 16, raped and sentenced to death
Earlier this month a Sudanese court sentenced 19 year old, Noura Hussein, to death. Her crime – killing a man in self-defence. This man, was the man she was forced to marry when she was 16, he was also the man who had reportedly raped her with the help of his cousins and brother. At the core of this devastating story is one important issue: women’s rights, or the lack thereof in this instance. The failure to acknowledge women’s rights is blatantly manifest in: the continued practice of forced child marriages; the societal and legal norms that dismally fail to acknowledge marital rape and; the failure to consider and give due weight to all of these factors in cases such as Noura’s.
According to Amnesty International, Noura was forced to marry Abdulrahman Mohamed Hammad by her father and the first step of this marriage was a contract signed between the two men. She was allowed to complete high school and then was forced to move in with her new husband.
Noura reportedly refused to consummate the marriage which led to rape on 2 May 2017. Abdulrahman asked his brother and two of his male cousins to hold Noura down while he raped her. When Abdulrahman tried to do this again the next day Noura managed to run to the kitchen where she defended herself with a knife. As Noura and Abdulrahman fought, Abdulrahman was fatally injured.
Noura sought refuge with her own family and they turned her into the police. She stood trial in July 2017 and on 29 April this year she was convicted of murder and later sentenced to death in terms of the 1991 Criminal Act.
Forced child marriages are a violation of human rights and have devastating consequences for the girls who are forced to become mothers and wives at a very young age. The United Nations estimates that worldwide, every year, 14 million girls are forced to marry under the age of 18. The global coalition Girls Not Brides estimates that more than 650 million women alive today were forced into marriage as children. Countries with highest percentage of women who were married before the age of 18 include, Niger, 75%, Chad 72%, Mali 71%, Bangladesh 64%, Guinea 63%, Central African Republic 61%. In Sudan, children over the age of 10 are allowed to be married.
The consequences of forced marriage for girls and young women are grave. Many of them do not complete their high school education due to the marriage, that is if they were lucky enough to have had a family that deemed it cost-effective to educate a girl who will never have a career as she can only ever be someone’s wife and mother.
Young brides are also frequently subjected to domestic violence and abuse as they are deemed to be their husbands property. As in Noura’s case, women go from “belonging” to their fathers to “belonging” to their husbands. They have little or no autonomy, they, in many cases, lose the support of their own families, and benefit from no protection from a legal system that castigates them as second class citizens.
As if being forced into a marriage was not bad enough, the fact that many countries do not recognise marital rape adds insult to injury and is yet another example the poor state of women’s rights. In several countries, Sudan included, there is no such thing as marital rape. Once a woman is married it is assumed that consent to sexual activity has been given on a permanent basis and is non-retractable. This leads to the dehumanisation of women as their autonomy and power to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to sexual intimacy is unduly, and unfairly stripped away. According to the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women “violence against women shall be understood to encompass, but not be limited to…marital rape… “ Perpetual consent by virtue of marriage simply cannot and should not be assumed.
In addition to facing high rates of domestic violence and rape, child brides are expected to bear children almost immediately. The rate of childbirth related deaths amongst child brides is high, the UN estimates that 70,000 young brides die on an annual basis due to pregnancy or childbirth related complications. Not only is the mother at risk but so is her infant. UNICEF estimates that children born to mothers under the age of 18 have a 60% higher chance of dying in their first year than children born to mothers over the age of 19.
The challenges faced by child brides are immense. Noura’s story is unfortunately too common and it is unconscionable that girls are forced into marriage, raped by their husbands and abandoned by their families and their legislators, policy makers and communities are doing nothing to protect them.
**This article appeared in the Star newspaper on 24 May 2018