Forgotten girls: How one child in Yemen is drawing attention to underage marriage
Eight million people and counting have watched a video featuring an 11-year-old Yemeni girl named Nada al-Ahdal. From what looks like the seat of a car, she talks about why she left home because, she says, her parents tried to marry her off. Al-Ahdal talks about the “innocence of children” and the consequences—including suicide—of being force-married to an older man at such a young age.
I spoke to The Washington Post on July 24 about why child marriage is more than just a lascivious act.
“The problem with underage marriage is that it poses great risks to the girls involved,” I said, explaining what I learned in my research for a story on this kind of marriage among Syrian girls: Complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Health Organization, and girls who marry early often leave school, restricting their potential for any work beyond manual labor. Girls who marry before the age of 18 “have a greater risk of becoming victims of intimate partner violence than those who marry at an older age,” reports the WHO.
Today the Post’s Max Fisher put up an excellent piece explaining nine facts about child marriage that includes these consequences and others. I urge you to read it.
One of the points Fisher makes is that girls born in underprivileged countries are more likely to become child brides. I witnessed this firsthand in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp—which is not exactly a country, but a growing semi-city with approximately 150,000 Syrian refugees and counting. It is a sprawling land of tents in which people have been shunted into dire poverty and the stress of refugee life. And many of the residents have arrived already poor, having come from agricultural areas of Syria.
In May at Zaatari, I witnessed a sad but humbling aspect of what leads to child marriage. While at a 15-year-old’s wedding, the bride’s father explained to me that he feared for his daughter’s safety and said he believed that having a husband would protect her from rape or a life of prostitution.
Then again, he didn’t exactly shun the bride price paid by the husband’s family.
But can we judge parents who choose to accept a fee for their teenage daughter because they can’t feed their other children, as was the case in this particular family?
What we can do is recognize that there are multiple terrible factors that have led to the marriage of 51 million underage girls right now worldwide.
As I said to the Post: “Girls are the world’s forgotten population. They do hard labor and eat last, after men and boys, in many parts of the world. Let’s listen to Nada—her appeal speaks to something very real, very horrifying, and certainly stunting for young women everywhere.”
We can actually choose to look the problem in the face—look right at the faces of these girls—instead of pretending such terrors for children don’t exist.
EDITOR’S NOTE: While there has been some controversy over whether certain parts of al-Ahdal’s story are true, we have chosen to highlight the issue of child marriage since this case has begun a global conversation.
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