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.