At first glance, you’d never guess that Nujood Mohammed Ali is Yemen’s most famous divorcee. She is slight, with a shy smile and coffee-color eyes. Ask what makes her laugh and she says, “My divorce.” What else? Tom and Jerry cartoons—she is, after all, just 10 years old, and loves playing jacks and dolls with her favorite sister, Haifa. Nevertheless, this year Nujood became Yemen’s first child bride to legally end her marriage. “I wanted to protect myself,” she says, “and other girls like me.”
Yemen is full of child brides. Roughly half of Yemeni girls are married before 18, some as young as eight. Child marriage, common in South Asia, sub- Saharan Africa and Middle-Eastern countries such as Yemen, is dangerous for brides and their children. As Glamour interviews Nujood with the help of a translator, an 18-year-old neighbor, who was married at 13 and now has four children, sits listening. Her toddler cries, and she swats him away. “They married me very young,” she explains. “I don’t have time to be a gentle mother.”
Before her marriage, Nujood loved school—specifically math and Quran classes—and made her father promise not to pull her out to be wed. But when she was nine, her parents arranged a husband for her. Nujood was dazzled by her wedding presents: three dresses; perfume; two hairbrushes; and two hijabs, or women’s head scarves. The groom, a 30-year-old courier, gave her a $20 ring, which Nujood says he soon took back to buy clothes for himself. She tells her story sitting on a grubby mattress in one of two rooms shared by her nine family members in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. A bare bulb illuminates a clock on the wall. It’s nearly midnight, but Nujood’s beloved Haifa, nine, is still selling gum on the street corner. Their father, Ali Mohammed Ahdal, a former street sweeper, has 16 children, two wives, and no job.
Poverty often leads to child marriage since a typical Yemeni earns about $900 a year, and marrying off girls means fewer mouths to feed. Then there is a question of honor. One of Nujood’s sisters had been raped, another kidnapped. When her father heard the kidnapper was eyeing Nujood, he thought marriage would save her. Instead, she says, she was beaten by in-laws, and nights were a hellish game of tag, with Nujood running from room to room to escape sex with her husband; he raped her anyway.
Nujood begged for help. “I was sad and angry,” her mother, Shuaieh, says, “but I still felt [her marriage] was the thing to do.” It was Nujood’s “auntie”—her father’s other wife, a beggar who lives in one room with her five children—who told the girl she might look for justice in court.