Why Yemen Won’t Ban Child Marriage and Rape
Nujood Ali was just an eight-year-old child
when her father arranged for her get married. She was one of 16 children. She loved school
and playing games with her brothers and sisters. Suddenly I was married. They got me clothes
and things so I wore them and they put make-up on for me. I was young, and I was happy with
all these things but I didn’t now it was for marriage, or what it meant. The man she married was three times her age.
He was a delivery driver who lived in a distant village. Nujood’s father made a deal with
his family. Why did you marry Nujood off? I married her off because of some compelling
circumstances. Things were difficult. That was the reason. There’s something very different about weddings
in Yemen. At celebrations like this, the groom is front and centre but you don’t see any
women, not even the bride. And when the bride is a child, she’s locked away, sometimes not
sure what the celebrations are all about. They had music playing and they were singing
and in the evening everyone went home. And I was crying. I wanted to go home. They said
“You’re married. You can’t go home.” I asked why. They said “You’re married now. You can’t
go back.” Nujood’s father was following a very common
practice in Yemen. Parents arrange marriages for their children when they are very young. But didn’t you think that this child Nujood,
just eight years old, that when a man had intercourse with her, it would cause injury? I thought… They said he’d only sleep with
her after a long period of time. At puberty. Puberty, yes. A year after. But the man didn’t
respect her and he did not respect us. He sexually assaulted me on the wedding night,
forced me. I was with his mother, sister and sister-in-law. Then his sister-in-law left
and his mother and sister stayed. He assaulted me. He said “Now you’re my wife.” Was his mother there when he sexually assaulted
you? Yes, his mother was holding me. Holding you. Yes, like this. Of course, I was screaming
but no one came to help me. Under Yemeni law, there is no crime of marital
rape and Nujood had no help from her family. They told her she now belonged to her husband
and had to face up to her duty. So you were crying and screaming… I was screaming as loud as I could, crying,
I was like begging them but no one…They said “You’re married now. You can’t scream
or beg anyone.” Nujood’s mother Samir believed that the marriage
would ease the burden on their family and give her daughter a better life. We married her off. Our circumstances were
difficult and the situation was harsh. We couldn’t feed them or clothe them. We couldn’t
provide anything. So we married her off. That would mean one less child. Despite her pleas for help, Nujood’s family
turned their back on her. They said she had to honour her marriage and avoid shaming the
family. I hoped that my parents would save me from
this marriage. But there was no hope of that though I had high hopes. I went to Dad, my
maternal uncle, my paternal uncle, but none of them would help me. So I thought I’m better
off helping myself than asking them to help me. With extraordinary courage for a 10-year-old,
Nujood set out to end her misery. Choosing a moment when her husband wasn’t looking,
she made a bid for freedom. I ran away. I took public transport. A bus,
then taxi. The driver asked “Where do you want to go?” I said “The court.” He said “Which
court?” I said “Just the court.” I didn’t know its name. He took me there. Nujood arrived at West Sanaa’s courthouse
where she sat sadly wondering what to do next. There was a strong possibility the court would
decide Nujood was a runaway and return her to her husband. Instead, she met a judge who
was astounded by her age and her courage. She started to tell me her story. I became
even more surprised. Is this for real? “What happened?” She said “Something black.” She
was shy so she didn’t say “intercourse”. When you say “black”, it means bad, not good. Intercourse.
“Don’t worry. Who is with you?” “I came on my own.” When the families gathered in court, the judge
told them that under Sharia law the marriage was legal. But he declared the husband should
have waited until Nujood reached puberty before having sex with her. So he granted her a divorce. If we look at Yemeni law… it does not specify
a certain age for marriage. Which means that a marriage contract can take place even if
the boy or the girl are still young. But here we have to differentiate between two things:
the marriage procedures and the actual practice of it, having intercourse with the wife. I’d like to ask you a question. Answer me
honestly. Are you guilty or not, as regards the marriage? The girl’s marriage? I’m guilty and the reason for this is poverty. -The reason is poverty?
-It is. I wouldn’t have married her off otherwise. Are you thinking of getting married again? No, no, no. Never in my life. No, no, no. Never in my life. of everything except marriage. I’ve removed
it from my mind, from my thinking. Ghadir Ali is another young Yemeni girl whose
father planned to marry her off to a much older man. She was just 12 and he wanted to
use her dowry to pay off his debts. Ghadir refused. After you said you refused, what did you do? He swore he’d kill me. -He swore he’d kill me.
-Kill you? I forced her to marry. I said “Either you agree, or I’ll kill you.” This was what I said.
“If you don’t agree, I’ll kill you.” Then she kept quiet. Then her uncles came to the wedding.
And during the procession they took her. -Her uncles?
-Yes. They took her during the procession. Ghadir’s wedding turned into an ugly family
fight. Her maternal uncle turned up determined to prevent the marriage. I only found out about the wedding on the
wedding day. I went to her and asked her “So, girl, are you getting married?” She said “Uncle,
I don’t want to marry. He forced me.” “How could he force you?” I said. “How could he
force you at your age?” I called her father. “How could you force the girl?” Didn’t this result in an argument, a gunfight? Yes, armed men came and this and that and
they beat me up. Did they beat you? They beat me up and said “Why are you marrying
her off? She’s a minor?” “You’re marrying her off? She’s a minor, you bastard.” I said
“I asked you to help me but none of you did.” In the end, the case came down to a legal
argument about money, Ghadir’s prospective husband had paid a large dowry and he wanted
it back. The court had to decide whether the marriage was a valid contract. Excuse me, sir. I’m the husband’s lawyer.
Sir, the fact is she consented to the marriage. She fingerprinted the contract. The father was the one who went to my client and asked him to marry his daughter. The father came first Her father came to me and said “I’ll marry her off to you” and we entered into the contract And she agreed and put her thumbprint on it. No one forced her. The celebrant, the judge, asked “Do you agree?” She said yes. He told her to thumbprint it.
We had witnesses. I paid all the wedding expenses. The procession…
Legal procedures… All my siblings lost money. While the lawyers argued, Ghadir waited outside
the court, a child caught up in an adult world beyond her understanding. She is one of many victims in Yemen because
of the financial situation of her family. Ghadir was married off because her father
had borrowed 300,000. She and her sister, who’s also a minor, were married off. Both
of them were married off and the father paid off his debt. Ghadir no longer lives with her husband but,
while the legal argument continues, her divorce has not yet been granted. In Yemen, the Human
Rights Watch estimates that more than half of all young girls are married before they’re
18. Marriages of girls as young as nine or 10 are common. Four years ago, the parliament
attempted to pass legislation making 17 the minimum age for marriage but it was blocked
by members of the opposition party -Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood. No one has the right, not the president, the
parliament or anyone, to restrict something God has allowed. Sheikh Mohammed Al-Hazmi is a member of Yemen’s
parliament and an Islamic scholar. Islam doesn’t specify an age for marriage.
Why do they look into something that is not an issue? Why do they make a problem out of
nothing? I want to ask…Why is early marriage a problem? Nujood’s divorce made her an international
celebrity. The media spotlight transformed the life of a shy 10-year-old girl. An American
fashion magazine staged a glittering awards ceremony in New York where Nujood was declared
Woman of the Year. A book about Nujood became an international best seller and the royalties
were put towards her education and a new house for her family in Yemen. This is for my sister and me. -For you and your sister?
-Yes. -It’s your room?
-Yes, we always sit in here. Are you happy with your father, after what he did to you? No, if I said I was I’d be lying. I’m not happy with him. -You’re not.
-I’m not. Are you still hurting? I’m still hurting, and every time I see him,
I suffer. Nujood’s younger sister Haifa is not sure
that her father has changed his ways. She’s frightened that he might try to arrange a
marriage for her. After what I’ve seen with my sister, I’m shocked.
That’s it, I don’t want it. You’re scared that the same might happen to
you. If the same thing happened to you, what would
you do? What would I do? I would not stay with him,
I’d run away. -You’d run away to avoid the marriage?
-Yes Will you do it again and marry another daughter
off at a young age? No, I won’t marry anyone off. Never again. -You won’t marry them off?
-Not until they’re over 22. What is my wish in life? At the moment, I
have no wish, only to continue my education. To finish primary school, high school and
God willing university and after that, I’m thinking… myself and other people, of establishing
an organisation to combat the phenomenon of early marriage or child marriage.