Updated: Oct 7, 2020
Nujood Ali was nine years old when her parents arranged her to be married to Faez Ali Thamer, a man in his thirties. Today, she is a central figure in the movement to end forced child marriage.
Nujood was born in Yemen, where the laws stipulate that girls cannot be married until the age of fifteen. Nonetheless, countless Yemeni families circumvent such statutes simply by outlining in marriage contracts that sex with underage girls is prohibited until they are considered “ready”. These futile agreements are rarely upheld. Nujood was raped and beaten on the evening of her wedding night. In her book, I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, she recalls calling out to find a female ally: “Amma! Auntie!” No one responded. Faez proceeded to exude a devilish cackle, whispering through a breath reeking of cigarettes and khat, “I repeat: you are my wife. Now you must do what I want! Got that?” The rapes and beatings continued. Nujood vividly recalls an instance in which Faez’s mother ordered him to “Hit her even harder. She must listen to you – she’s your wife.”
After weeks of Nujood’s pleas to return to her hometown, Faez relented. When she recounted the daily violence she endured with her parents, their response was unyielding. Her mother insisted that those beatings and rapes were simply a part of women’s lives. When Nujood insisted that she leave the marriage, her father said, “If you divorce your husband, my brothers and cousins will kill me! Sharaf, honor, comes first. Honor! Do you understand?” Nujood was also wistfully aware that her impoverished parents desperately needed the money they had earned from her arraigned marriage. Seeing that her pleas and horrific accounts were ineffective, she hailed a taxi, unescorted, to the courthouse. There, she asked for a divorce. Weeks later, as a result of her zeal, alongside the help of a powerful human rights lawyer, Shada Nasser, Nujood became the first Yemeni child bride to have their marriage legally abrogated.
Nujood’s victorious and remarkable case is unfortunately the anomaly when it comes to child marriage.
According to UNICEF, more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday, and more than one in three (about 250 million) entered into union before age 15.
Child marriage is an especially prevalent issue in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. While the practice is derived from traditions and honor, there are other fundamental issues that foster its continuation and pertinence today. First, girls are married off for safety reasons. As paradoxical as this may sound, Nujood’s father married her off given two of his daughters had been raped and kidnapped. This effort to ensure Nujood's safety was fruitless, as her husband habitually raped and beat her. Furthermore, girls are born into the world innately inflicting burden and hardship upon families due to the limitations societies place on them. That is, in many countries, girls are only seen as another mouth to feed, as they do not have the same access to school, and transitively employment opportunities that boys do. Selling a daughter into marriage is often the only plausible and immediate remedy to a family’s economic hardships. Finally, laws surrounding the practice are either nonexistent, vague and circumventable, or go unenforced.
To bring an end to this detrimental and inhumane practice, there are a number of actions that can and must be taken.
First, we must fight for a safer and more secure world for women and girls. This means educating women about their rights when it comes to abuse. This also implies holding men accountable and ensuring that gender equity is at the forefront of teaching, media exposure, and leadership. Second, we must support organizations and programs that aim to keep girls in school. According to UNICEF, Households around the world tend to make decisions about girls’ schooling and marriage jointly, not sequentially, and education nearly always loses. As such, lower levels of education are found among women who married in childhood. In Malawi, for instance, nearly two thirds of women with no formal education were child brides compared to 5 per cent of women who attended secondary school or higher levels of education. An influx of girls in school presents a host of benefits, including female economic and social empowerment, improved health for women and their children, and of course, lower rates of child marriage. Third, we must advocate for improved, enforceable laws surrounding the practice of child marriage.
Both grassroots and legal advances are crucial to undermining this harmful practice, and we must all come together to fight for a world in which girls are not simply commodities for exchange.
Choosing who we love, if and when we marry, and if we ultimately decide to leave a marriage are basic human rights. When women and girls have options, they will be able to participate more fully in society, and societies, as a result, will flourish.
At Women Going Beyond, our mission is centered on empowering girls through education in order to cultivate female empowerment, promote gender equality, and mitigate the risks of women and girls falling victim to child marriage, trafficking and prostitution. We deeply appreciate your support, and encourage you to give what you can or consider volunteering your time to support our vision of a more equitable world for all.