“I’m a simple village girl whose family had to move to the capital, and I have always obeyed the orders of my father and brothers. Since forever, I have learned to say yes to everything. Today I have decided to say no.
Inside of me I have been soiled, contaminated – it’s as if a part of myself has been stolen from me. No one has the right to keep me from seeking justice.”
These are the words of Nujood Ali, a ten year old Yemini girl forced into marriage with a man three times her age. As a wife, Nujood was repeatedly raped by her husband and abused physically and emotionally by her mother-in-law. She suffered in silence for months.
In one respect, Nujood’s experience is not unique. Child marriages are not uncommon in Yemen. A 2006 UNICEF report found that over 50% of girls are married before the age of eighteen, with a significant minority married before the age of fifteen, the legal minimum age. In rural areas, girls as young as eight are married, often to men considerably older.
In Yemen, child marriages occur for a few main reasons. Poverty is a big factor. For a poor family, a girl can be seen as a financial burden, so using a ‘one less mouth to feed’ mentality, an early marriage of a daughter can ease a family’s financial strain. The dowry is also a factor. Traditionally in Yemen a dowry of money or gifts is given to the woman and her family prior to a marriage. For some families, especially the poor, the dowry is a financial incentive for the early marriage of their daughters. Also, for some, early marriage is a way of safeguarding the honour of the girl and her family. A family’s honour is dependant, amongst other things, on the sexual purity of its women. The marriage of a young girl prevents the chance of premarital sex and in doing so protects her and her family’s honour.
In the case of Nujood’s marriage, all three factors were in play. Nujood, from a desperately poor family with many other brothers and sisters quotes her father; “This marriage, it’s the best way to protect her…This way she won’t be raped by a stranger and become the prey of evil rumours.”
Stories like Nujood’s, full of suffering and misery than come with child marriages can be heard all over Yemen. In another respect, Nujood’s case is extraordinary. With insight and courage beyond her years Nujood fled to a courthouse and demanded a divorce on her on accord. Her court case attracted world-wide media attention and at age ten she became the youngest ever divorcee in Yemen. Nujood’s victory has not only benefited her, but also other girls in Yemen. Nujood’s courage inspired other girls to take a stand against the injustice of their early marriages and abuse and seek divorces.
With the help of French journalist Delphine Minoui, Nujood produced a memoir titled “I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced.” The publication of an English language version in 2010 has drawn international attention to child marriages and the plight of many girls in Yemen. Although the situation for many girls has improved, meaningful change will take time and considerable effort. The current uprisings Yemen provide further opportunities for action against this cruel practice. The political upheaval has created space for women of Yemen to follow the courageous example of little Nujood and take a stand against injustice.
Currently, Nujood and her sisters attend a private school. Royalties from her book help to fund the girls’ education. After her schooling, Nujood plans to become a lawyer and establish a foundation to help young girls in Yemen.