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 underwent a horrifying rape 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 amidst the attack: “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 Nujood bashfully recounted the daily violence that she had 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 wistfully grew cognizant of the notion that her impoverished parents desperately needed the money Faez’s family had paid in exchange for Nujood’s hand in marriage. Seeing that her pleas and detailed, 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.
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 older daughters had been raped and kidnapped. Nonetheless, his effort to ensure Nujood’s safety was fruitless, as she suffered repeated rapes and beatings by the hands of her very own husband. 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.
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 percent 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 prohibition of child marriage.
Choosing who we love, if and when we marry, and if we ultimately opt to leave a marriage, are all 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.