When London-based human rights lawyer Beth Wood rejected her death sentence and was freed last week, she set herself an unusual mission: to help those still suffering under the shackles of arranged child marriages.
She was waiting outside Belgrade airport when her husband, a chief photographer, arrived from London and was told the couple could no longer live together.
Maria and Beth Wood.
“When I heard that all I could think of was trying to save as many families as possible, I just felt like I had no choice,” she said. “The fact that I was officially single helped me think about my mission in an entirely different way.”
In 2015, the Strasbourg-based European court of human rights (ECHR) rejected her attempt to have an Uzbekistan criminal offence against “attempted abandonment” that carries a prison sentence overturned.
Elmar Brok, a German member of the European parliament and chair of the parliament’s human rights committee, now has the task of implementing the ruling and persuading governments in Central Asia, and in Muslim states such as Iran and Pakistan, that allowing a child to marry later can go beyond legal protection.
Under pressure in the run-up to parliamentary elections next month, Brok’s decision could put him at loggerheads with some conservative parliamentary leaders. Countries such as Pakistan and Iran already offer substantial social benefits to child brides, who represent the majority of teenage brides.
“Turkey, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan are all very conservative, and my chances are slim,” Brok said. “This is the country that has signed the Istanbul declaration on combating child marriages.”
Under the treaty, Armenia was told it had to improve its record on child marriage, specifically by providing girls between the ages of 15 and 18 with the right to a family court hearing on whether they should be allowed to marry with their own consent.
A loss for Brok would also condemn him to possibly months of meticulous monitoring, by Interpol, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women.
Sophie Hungerford, director of the Forced Marriage Unit at UK charity Karma Nirvana, praised Brok for putting his reputation on the line. “We have seen other countries fall behind in their implementation because of political opposition and there’s no reason why it can’t happen here in Britain,” she said.
“We’ve never had a legal minimum marriage age in the UK, and we are not on course to follow the Netherlands, Sweden and Luxembourg in making it clear that at least 15 is a minimum age for all marriages. It is completely insane that they should tolerate this.”
At 16, Brok’s father picked him up in Sarajevo after a four-month internment in an overcrowded Nazi-occupied prison, where he was afraid of the uncertainty.
“I really couldn’t wait to get back to my parents,” he said. “That’s how it felt for me; I felt lost.”
Within three weeks of coming to Britain, the teenager joined a group of ex-child soldiers at a school on the Isle of Wight, where he was comforted by a 27-year-old woman he would call Marjane.
Years later, they would move into a flat in Tooting, south London, just yards from Wood, their nearest neighbour. They arranged to have an old neighbour moved in.
Within a year Wood had been offered a scholarship to Newnham College, a private prep school in Cambridge, and by 18 had graduated with a 2:1 in political science and English. She became the first black female lawyer to work for the parliamentary solicitors’ service and established her own human rights practice in the House of Lords in 2015.
The couple married in 2012. By their mid-20s, the only wedding day of their lives that they shared was their daughter Sam’s, in 2013.
During the 28-day press embargo in the summer of 2016, the news emerged in a letter from Amnesty International. The news was rife with details that shocked her husband: their elder child, nine-year-old Shallikha, was neglected and living on bread and biscuits, Wood said.
The ECHR, which had previously ruled in favour of Wood and her husband, rejected their complaint against the Uzbekistan criminal offence of abandoning their child, made after a marriage arranged by the state, for which they would be punished for four years by a prison sentence and fined £300.
In refusing to annul the offence, the court pointed to a legal basis at the time of the offence, a decree issued by the president