Nujood Ali was once just like any nine-year-old girl – happy, cheerful and carefree. She loved school, had big dreams of studying and having a career, and in her spare time she could be found playing with her 15 doting siblings. Although times were hard as slum dwellers in the Yemeni capital Sana’a, and the family often fell asleep hungry on the cold floor of their two-roomed home, Nujood maintained an innocence typical of youth, even when it was proclaimed that, against her will, she was to be married.
With childlike naivety, Nujood took the preparations and procedures for her wedding, held in February 2008, lightly. Basking in the attention and enchanted by the gifts, the little girl embraced the role of playing the grown-up, pouting for lipstick and posing in her freshly laundered hijab.
But what she considered to be simply dressing up, would in fact prove to be a nightmare, an event brought on by a typical Yemeni everyday act on her father’s behalf.
Former Sana’a street sweeper, Ali Mohammad Al Ahdel, a father of 16, had accepted a dowry of approximately $250 (Dh920) and in return had promised his daughter as a bride to Faez Ali Thamer, a delivery driver in his 30s; more than three times Nujood’s age.
While the male-centred festivities unfolded in her husband’s home, Nujood was isolated – locked away in a room next door, as is customary in Yemen, a country with one of the world’s lowest rankings for gender equality.
“They had music playing and they were singing,” Nujood recalls on Journeyman TV’s documentary Why is Yemen Incapable of Banning Child Marriage and Rape.
“In the evening they all left and I was crying, I wanted to go home. They told me I was married now; I couldn’t go back.”
Terrified of her newfound role and finding little comfort from her in-laws, the little girl has publicly spoken of crying for help as her husband approached, expecting her to perform marital duties.
When asked if she was alone she talks of being held down by her mother-in-law so that her son could consummate the marriage, robbing Nujood of her childhood. “I was screaming,” she tells the camera frankly, “but of course no one came to help me.”
Nujood’s story is, sadly, not unique in Yemen. It was, however, catapulted on to the global stage, where it caught the world’s attention and highlighted the plight of millions of Yemeni child brides.
And it did so solely because of the little girl’s brave and unique actions. In an unprecedented turn of events, a year after her marriage, Nujood did what no one had done before her; she escaped from her marital home, took a bus and taxi to a Sana’a urban courthouse and demanded that a judge grant her a divorce at the age of 10. Represented by Sana’a’s first female lawyer, Shada Nasser, who has dedicated her life to defending women, the pair fought for an unprecedented divorce on the grounds that Faez Ali Thamer had broken Yemeni law by consummating the marriage before his wife had reached puberty.
Just a few weeks later the pretty little girl became the world’s youngest divorcee.
Nujood’s story and resilience sent shock waves throughout the international community, her case highlighting the atrocities that befall child brides the world over. In Yemen what made the practice more alarming was that it was (and remains) legal, with no criminal charges for marital rape or protection for the many child brides.
Despite fervent media attention garnered from Nujood’s case (she travelled the globe picking up awards including Glamour magazine’s 2008 Woman of the Year, where she collected her prize alongside Nicole Kidman and Hilary Clinton), five years later little has changed in Yemen and the practice, which is an internationally recognised human rights violation, remains prolific.
It’s difficult to give exact figures on how widespread child marriage is, says Unicef’s chief of child protection, Micaela Pasini, explaining, “because there is no systematic data collection and there is no real practice of registering marriages. Moreover, age determination in Yemen is also very difficult because birth registration here is very low.
“However we estimate from the most recent national social protection monitoring survey carried out in 2013 that 16 per cent of girls are married [often against their will] before the age of 15 and 44 per cent are married before the age of 18. That gives an idea of the extent of the problem.” Child marriage, although highlighted in Yemen due to numerous recent reports in the press, is in fact a global concern spanning continents from Asia to Africa. A recent United Nations report estimates that 14 million girls under the age of 18 are married off against their wishes every year across the globe and that, should the practice not be stopped by 2020, some 37,000 underage girls will be forced to get married each and every day.
Although different countries dictate different customs when it comes to marrying off young daughters, the dangerous and disturbing repercussions on a young girl forced to marry a man often many years her senior remain universal. Statistics reveal that girls under 15 are five times more likely to die during childbirth than women in their 20s while the children of child brides are 60 per cent more likely to die before their first birthday.
“The fact is young girls die because of child marriage,” says human rights organisation Equality Now’s Middle East and North Africa consultant, Suad Abu-Dayyeh. “It is abuse, it is rape and it is trafficking of girls. [Child marriage] takes away their basic human rights and for these reasons it is a crime.”
In September 2013, reports yet again filtered out to the world’s newsrooms of the death of an eight-year-old girl named Rawan from a tribal area in the northwest of the Yemen. Activists claim the child bride died after sustaining fatal internal bleeding on the night of her wedding, having been married off to a man five times her age.
Authorities at the time denied the reports and presented a girl they claimed to be Rawan. However, freelance journalist Mohammad Radman – who broke the news story – said the girl’s neighbours had confirmed the claims.
Rawan’s case is not the only child death to catch the media’s attention. In 2010, 13-year-old Elam Assi died after being raped by her 23-year-old husband a few days into her arranged marriage. Before her, in September 2009, a 12-year-old wife died along with her baby after spending three days in labour.
“These are the cases that get media attention,” says Suad, “but through our partnership with the Yemen Woman’s Union and other organisations, we hear about many other cases that go unreported.”
Not only does Yemen have one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the Middle East and North Africa, but, even if the country’s young brides survive, they are at risk of physical and psychological problems for life.
“We do hear of young girls dying a few days after their wedding night,” says Rothna Begum, women’s rights researcher for international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW). “But frankly, child marriage entails numerous devastating health consequences and the majority of those who manage to survive such relationships suffer other extremely harmful consequences because their bodies are just too small and underdeveloped to cope with pregnancy and child birth.”
“What are also under-reported are the mental and psychological consequences. Many of them are not informed about what marriage entails, they haven’t been given sex education and, under the age of 18, they simply don’t understand what they are getting into.
“It also means that girls as young as 12, 13, 14 and beyond end up having miscarriages. One gynaecologist told us that she saw a young girl [of 13] run into a bathroom and give birth to a stillborn. Dramatic consequences such as that are happening.”
That same gynaecologist, Dr Arwa Rabi’i, also told Human Rights Watch she sees terrified young girls struggle through labour on a daily basis.
“When a woman marries early, her uterus and hips are generally not fully developed and there will be serious gynaecological health problems like multiple miscarriages and life-threatening infections. We see it every day, not every month or week. Every day, many of them; 10 or twenty sick girls.”
Less hard-hitting but just as damaging is the fact that many child brides are forcibly removed from school at an early age in order to be prepared for marriage. The move not only hinders the development and education of young Yemeni girls but has negative effects on the country’s economy while maintaining the cycle of poverty that is a cause and effect of child marriage.
“It is a catastrophe,” explains Suad of Equality Now. “She is out of school, she has no access to education, she faces health issues, and she remains immature. We want the government to be aware of the adverse impact of this crime, because when you pull a girl from her education and you put her in a strange family, where many times the groom will have another wife and other children, it is not only very sad but also inhuman.”
As a result, in these strange homes often far away from their families and living with a man with whom they have nothing in common – due to, amongst many things, an age barrier – the girls suffer from rejection, isolation and depression. Fighting for survival, many resort to childbearing but in so doing lose their innocence, their childhood and their chances for personal development and educational growth.
“When they are very young,” says HRW’s Rothna, “they have not yet formed the mental faculties that would allow them to really understand the concept of marriage, marital life, the need for family planning. Many of these girls tell us that they lost control of their lives, they lost control of when and how many children they should bear and a number of them had their dreams shattered.” There is also much evidence to suggest that young girls who are forced to marry older men are more likely to experience psychological and physical domestic violence, abuse and abandonment. “We also see a higher prevalence of domestic violence towards married girls under the age of 18,” says HRW’s Rothna. “Studies have shown that this is the case because under the age of 18 she will likely suffer because of the power dynamics. The man is much, much older and so is more likely to be violent or abusive towards her because she is young and unable to defend or stand up for herself.”
Consequently child brides often demonstrate symptoms of abuse and post-traumatic stress, while remaining locked in a cycle of helplessness and hopelessness.
While many of these marriages are traditional transactions, cultural rites of passage or resolutions to family feuds, more often than not they are deeply rooted in Yemen’s pressing poverty.
As one of the poorest countries in the world, half of Yemen’s population live below the poverty line while, according to the United Nations Development Programme, 15.7 per cent live on less than $1 a day and 13 million have no access to safe water and basic sanitation.
Given their dire financial situations, families often view their daughters as economic assets and turn to attractive dowries, often paid by older men for younger girls, to put food on the table for other family members. “Most of the girls who are married come from poor areas,” says Equality Now’s Suad, “because the family is in need of money they sacrifice their daughter, her health, her well-being and her education to make sure the rest of the family is supported financially. Basically she pays the price of poverty with her life.”
In the case of Nujood, her parents, as impoverished providers for her and 15 other children, believed the marriage would offer their daughter a better life.
“Our situation was harsh,” her mother says in the TV documentary on their story. “We couldn’t feed or clothe our children. We couldn’t provide anything, so we married her off.” It’s a misconception that befalls countless families, particularly those in rural areas who without the proper access to information and education, believe arranging the marriage of a daughter to an older more financially stable man will provide her much better protection.
“There are many motivations for child marriage,” says Unicef’s Micaela Pasini. “But often it is related to extreme poverty and the belief that marriage can alleviate the financial burden of the family. In the most positive cases it’s a protection concern. Yemen is a very conservative society so many believe that marrying off the girl at an early age will ensure there are no rumours [about the girl] as it will prevent the possibility of relations outside of marriage, which would undermine the family honour.”
Thanks to recent cases hitting international headlines, including 11-year-old Yemeni Nada Al Ahdal, whose YouTube clip claiming she ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage garnered millions of hits from viewers around the globe, the issue of child brides has been revived. Organisations such as HRW, Unicef and Equality Now, amongst many others, have all been fiercely lobbying ministers and parliament to pass legislation setting the minimum age for marriage at 18 to put an end to the devastating ancient tradition.
“Of course there are some opponents [to the introduction of the new law],” says Equality Now’s Suad. “But in general, the majority of the parliamentarians are in favour.” On April 27 this year, Legal Affairs Minister Mohammad Makhlafi submitted the proposed Child Rights Law to Prime Minister Mohammad Basindawa.
The proposed legislation is not new in Yemen. For example, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “The Yemeni government nearly passed similar legislation in 2009. Parliament was then scheduled to vote on a minimum age for marriage provision, but a small conservative bloc sought and obtained an additional review … After the committee objected to the draft law… neither parliament nor the president took further steps to adopt the law.”
The only protection provided was that the marriage should not be consummated until the girl bride reached puberty. HRW’s Rothna says, “Of course, unfortunately, we continue to see cases of girls under 15 (or before they have reached puberty) being raped by their husbands.” And with no laws making it a crime in place, perpetrators remain innocent in the eyes of the law.
“Many fathers and men who are engaged with the marriage walk away completely free,” Rothna says. “Men who rape young girls who then die as a result, are not prosecuted… So at the end of the day what we’re seeing is that young girls are being married off, their fathers are not being held accountable.”
With a national dialogue to establish a new constitution underway, however, (of its 565 participants, 30 per cent are women) there is hope among human rights organisations that a satisfactory minimum age of marriage will become law.
Rothna sums up the situation succinctly: “We need to see a nationwide strategy to eradicate child marriage. Because when girls marry young it affects not just them but their children and their children’s children. It is a cycle that needs to be broken and for Yemen’s development we need to ensure girls can benefit the economy rather than ending up illiterate, trapped in their homes, and unable to pass on skills to their children.”