Eleven-year-old Nada al-Ahdal may have escaped her arranged marriage to a much older man, but every year, millions of underage Yemeni girls don’t.
That’s perhaps the ultimate takeaway of a chilling video that rocketed to the top of YouTube and Reddit on Monday. In it, al-Ahdal -- a skinny, baby-faced 11-year-old whose parents tried twice to sell her into marriage -- rails against Yemen’s child marriages and vows to never return to her family.
“It’s not our fault. I’m not the only one. It can happen to any child,” she says in the video, which was originally posted by Yemeni photographer Ziad Abdul-Jabbar and translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute. “There are many cases like that. Some children decided to throw themselves into the sea. They’re dead now.”
“Go ahead and marry me off,” she continues. “I’ll kill myself, just like that.”
Al-Adhal’s story had been reported in Middle Eastern media before the translated video went viral on the English-speaking Web. According to NOW, a Lebanese news site, the 11-year-old was raised by a paternal uncle who encouraged her to study English and music. The uncle, Abdel Salam, managed to scuttle his niece’s first arranged marriage, which her parents proposed three months after her 10th birthday. But when he let her visit her parents later that year, they tried to marry the girl off again -- forcing her to run away and file a complaint with the police.
As much as Al-Adhal’s success in avoiding child marriage has been rightfully celebrated – such unions are made well before the child can consent and are sometimes considered a form of human trafficking – it’s part of a much wider and ongoing practice in Yemen. A 2006 study from the Yemeni government and the United Nations’ children’s fund estimated that more than half of all girls there are married before age 18. Fourteen percent of those marry before age 15, which is perfectly legal in a country with no minimum marriage age. Domestic abuse and gender-based violence are rampant in such unions.
"The problem with underage marriage is that it poses great risks to the girls involved," said Lauren Wolfe, who directs the Women Under Siege project at the Women's Media Center. In low- and middle-income countries, pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death for girls ages 15 to 19. Girls who marry early also rarely finish school, setting them back for life.
Unfortunately, the underlying causes of child marriage make the practice difficult to stamp out, both in Yemen and other poor countries. When Wolfe reported on underage marriage in Syrian refugee communities, she found that parents often wanted to marry their daughters off to keep them safe. And even when parents' motives were more selfish, the marriages were often prompted by real "poverty and misery." As in Al-Adhal's case, parents stand to profit from the sale.
Underage marriage is by no means limited to the Middle East, either: UNICEF reports that more than a third of all 20- to 24-year-old women in the developing world had been married before age 18. Among older women, that percentage reached almost 50 percent.
"Girls are the world’s forgotten population," Wolfe said. "They do hard labor and eat last, after men and boys, in many parts of the world. Let’s listen to Nada -- her appeal speaks to something very real, very horrifying, and certainly stunting for young women everywhere."