It used to be that for an issue to become the subject of worldwide debate it had to be investigated, fact-checked and exposed yet today all it takes is a video gone viral. This month, a video of 11-year-old Yemeni girl Nada Al-Ahdal made the rounds on social media sites and after hitting over 7 million views the story was picked up by the media and the doors of debate were flung open.
This video showed young Nada eloquently telling the world that she has escaped the horrors of home seeking refuge at her uncle’s house because her mother intended to have her married. The passionate child addressed each and every one of us and asked, “What happens to a child’s innocence?” She expressed her wish to die rather than be sold to a man and feared for the lives of other young girls like her who have had their lives ruined. All of a sudden the child bride had a face and that in itself moved the world more than any statistic could.
The media pounced on the story based on its circulation and once again failed to do journalism’s basic requirement, that is, investigate. Turned out Nada’s video was staged by her uncle who works as a graphic technician in a TV station. Nada’s mother never intended on marrying her off and the girl never escaped from home. After the media vilified Nada’s parents in an attempt to save face the story was dismissed as a hoax and the world moved on and away from Nada.
As this story fades away its remnants still linger on and one wonders, so what if this video is a sham and Nada was never to be a child bride? The facts remain that according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) a staggering 52% of girls in Yemen are married before the age of 18. Adding insult to injury in 1999 Yemen’s parliament abolished article 15 of its Personal Status Law which set the minimum age for marriage at 15. Simply put, Yemen has no minimum age for marriage. In a study conducted by Sanaa University it was revealed that in some areas in Yemen girls as young as eight are married off.
Faced with these frightening figures does it really matter that Nada’s video was staged? Has the world missed the larger picture with regard to this story by dismissing it as a lie? Nada’s story might have been fiction but the crimes she spoke of are very much a reality. In 2008 the world was shell-shocked after hearing the story of 10-year-old Nujood Ali who approached a court in Sanaa asking the judge for a divorce. The words spoken by Nada, scripted or not, depict the lives of many young girls in Yemen who remain helpless because of the poverty compelling parents to sell their children to the highest bidder and the lack of laws which have aided these inhumane acts.
Yemen is not alone when it comes to the normalisation of child marriages for the likes of these injustices are prominent in all countries suffering from endless political unrest and devastated by poverty. Countries like Niger, Afghanistan and Pakistan among many others rank highest in percentage of child marriages. This pandemic exists all over the world and must be combated. Cases of child marriages reveal many forms of physical abuse and violence, premature pregnancies and a high rate of infant mortality. The psychological effects on the young brides and the eternal feeling of isolation have led to many taking their own lives.
It is predicted that 100 million young girls will be married in the next 10 years. Child protection laws must be enforced and greater efforts exerted in educating parents and providing a safe haven for children who have no choice but to escape the dismal future forced upon them. Adults should not be given the right to throw parties celebrating the death of their child’s innocence.
An 8-year-old girl should not be denied her childhood by living a life carrying out the duties of a wife. 13-year-old girls should not be raising children for they have yet to live their own childhood. These young girls represent our future and what a ghastly one it will be if we continue allowing these injustices to happen.
Nada Al-Ahdal is not a child bride and we pray she never will be, but her question to the world still echoes in my mind and should do so in yours as well, when we allow for such crimes to occur she asks… “What happens to a child’s innocence?”
This article was published in The Gulf Today Newspaper on 4 August, 2013.
Arabic version published in Al Khaleej Newspaper http://bit.ly/1914uxN