Why An 11-Year-Old's Video Plea Can't Stop The Plague Of Forced Marriages

11-year-old Nada Al-Ahdal
11-year-old Nada Al-Ahdal
Claudia Huppertz

It’s her eyes that are so arresting. Big brown eyes looking at the camera. Nada Al-Ahdal holds that serious, penetrating, almost unwavering look the whole time – just under three minutes – she addresses viewers.

Nada is 11 years old. If her parents had had their way, she would be married by now -- married to a much older man she’s never seen, as she relates in the Internet video. But before that could happen the little Yemeni girl fled to her uncle’s house.

Her parents allegedly threatened Nada with death if she didn’t marry. She looks almost defiant when she says: "I’m better off dead. I’d rather die." After she fled to her uncle’s house, she filed a complaint against her mother.

Under no circumstances does she wish to return to her parents. "My mother, my family, believe me when I say: I’m done with you. You’ve ruined my dreams."

If Nada’s version of events is true, she has experienced things in her short life, which could explain why she talks like a grown-up. "My maternal aunt was 14 years old. She lasted one year with her husband, then poured gasoline over herself and set herself on fire. She died. He would beat her with metal chains, he would get drunk," says Nada.

Since the age of three, Nada grew up with her uncle, Abdel Salam al-Ahdal, reports news portal NOW (a.k.a. NOW LEBANON) which says it spoke with al-Ahdal. The girl apparently attended school, performed in musicals, and learned English during her vacations. Her parents wanted to marry her off a year ago to a rich Yemeni who lives in Saudi Arabia. The man had asked for the girl’s hand and had already paid the parents a price for the bride.

According to NOW, Nada’s uncle talked the prospective bridegroom out of the marriage by telling him bad things about the girl. But there was a second suitor. Out of fear the uncle would also sabotage the second offer, Nada’s parents didn’t tell him about it. Instead they told him they’d like to spend Ramadan with the girl, and she returned home for that. However, when a few days later they tried to force her to marry, she fled.

“I would have had no life, no education. Don’t they have any compassion?" the child asks on the video.

She says that she’s happy she managed to get away, and knows how unusual that is. "I managed to solve my problem but some innocent children can’t solve theirs," she says. "I’m not the only one, it can happen to any child."

It is difficult to verify if Nada experienced what she says she did or not. Some Internet viewers have noted that she seems to have learned a text by heart. Another source of doubt is the fact that according to NOW, Nada’s uncle works for a TV channel, and the video was translated into English by the controversial Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) which some say lacks objectivity when it comes to Islamic issues. But regardless of whether or not the video is genuine, it is true that stories similar to the one Nada relates play out all the time in Yemen, and rare is the child bride who manages to escape her fate.

In 2010, an unusual case involving an eight-year-old girl captured international attention. Nujood Ali ran away from her husband, who was 22 years older than she was and who raped and beat her. She managed to obtain a divorce, becoming Yemen’s youngest divorcee. Also in 2010, in Yemen, a 13-year-old girl died of vaginal bleeding four days after her forced marriage to an older man. And in 2012, photographer Stephanie Sinclair won the World Press Photo Award for her image of two Yemeni child brides with their husbands.

But none of the above changed anything. In Yemen, girls of any age may marry or be given in marriage. Draft legislation that would have set a minimum age of 17 for girls to marry was rejected in 2010. According to Human Rights Watch, 52% of all Yemeni girls are married before they reach the age of 18. There is however a law forbidding sex with pre-pubescent girls. Nujood’s case however shows that it is questionable to just what extent this law is observed.

Once girls are married, their schooling typically stops, and many don’t know how to read or write, making them “second-class citizens,” Human Rights Watch reports. Child and maternal mortality rates are high because in many cases girls get pregnant while they themselves are still children and know little about their bodies. According to the organization, many young brides are also often verbally denigrated and beaten by their husbands, and have little opportunity for escape.

This past March, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a study showing that worldwide 39,000 girls under 18 years of age are married off daily. That’s more than 14 million a year. According to WHO forecasts, between 2013 and 2020, 140 million underage girls will be married -- some 50 million of them under the age of 15. The organization believes that quickly rising population figures in developing countries may exacerbate the problem.

Nada is said to have written to NOW: "Let me fulfill my dreams. I want to go to school, become a star, and help other children." She has already reached something like star status: in the few days since the YouTube video was uploaded, more than 7 million people have viewed it.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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