WASHINGTON, July 24, 2013 – A video of 11-year-old Nada Al-Ahdal protesting her forced marriage to a much older man went viral on social networks YouTube and Reddit on Monday. The young girl ran away from her parents and is currently living with her uncle in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital.
Nada’s spirited condemnation of her family and the practice of child marriage is difficult to watch but lends a face to the plight of millions of young girls around the world.
“It’s true that I ran away from my family,” says the big-eyed girl in the video. “What about the innocence of childhood?”
“Go ahead and marry me off,” Nada continues. “I’ll kill myself, just like that.” She goes on to talk about an aunt who was forced into marriage at 13, committing suicide one year later by pouring gasoline and lighting herself on fire.
Since the age of three, Nada’s uncle, a montage and graphics technician at a Yemeni TV station, and aging grandmother have raised her. Nada has been brought up in a loving home, encouraged to get an education and learn English and music.
Her uncle managed to discourage a previous marriage her parents tried to arrange when Nada was 10 years old. However, when she went to visit them some months later, they tried again to force her into marriage. At this time, Nada ran away, returned to her uncle, and together they filed a complaint with the local police.
Originally reported on by the Middle Eastern media before it was translated to English, the sub-titled video has almost seven million views.
A worldwide problem
Nada is one of the lucky ones. According to Human Rights Watch, close to 14% of Yemeni girls are married before the age of 15, and 52% are married before the age of 18. In certain rural areas of the country, girls can be married as young as eight years old.
Yemen is not one of the 158 countries that have set the legal marriage age at 18. In fact, because of political infighting and bureaucracy, there is currently no marriage age in Yemen.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that at present 14.2 million girls are getting married before the age of 18 every year—that is 39,000 every day.
“Child marriage is an appalling violation of human rights and robs girls of their education, health and long-term prospects,” says Babatunde Osotimehin, M.D, Executive Director, United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA). “A girl who is married as a child is one whose potential will not be fulfilled.”
Even though some boys are forced into childhood marriage, it is much more common for girls to be married at a young age. Child marriage rates vary dramatically between—and even within—countries, occurring mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Child marriage is considered a violation a of girl’s rights for several reasons. Marrying too early generally puts an end to a girl’s education, blocks a girl’s opportunity to gain vocational or life skills, exposes girls to the physical and psychological effects of a too-early pregnancy, and increases their risk of intimate partner sexual violence and HIV infection.
According to the United Nations and WHO, the leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 is complications from childbirth and pregnancy. According to UNICEF, around 50,000 girls between those ages die annually. Additionally, stillbirths and newborn deaths are 50% higher among mothers under 20 than among those who get pregnant after 20.
“Child marriage marks an abrupt and often violent introduction to sexual relations,” says Claudia Garcia Moreno, M.D., of WHO, a leading expert in violence against women. “The young girls are powerless to refuse sex and lack the resources or legal and social support to leave an abusive marriage.”
A complex issue
Child marriage is a complex issue that is deeply entrenched in tradition and gender inequality, compounded by poverty and lack of education. In many places where this is practiced, girls have little opportunity; marriage is presented as their only option.
Many poor families marry their young girls off because they cannot afford to clothe, feed, and house them. In some cultures prospective husbands pay for their young wives, making child marriage attractive to struggling families.
There are also several social pressures that help perpetuate the practice. In some cultures, it is believed that marrying a girl before puberty will bring the family good fortune. In others, there is the belief that marrying a girl young will protect her from sexual violence, pregnancy out of marriage, and prevent dishonor to the family.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has placed ending child marriage high among priorities for the Every Woman Every Child initiative and Millennium Development Goals.
Several countries, like Malawi, have made great strides in ending child marriage. However, in places like Yemen, many girls still face a grim future as a child bride.
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