Nojoud is an 8-year-old Yemeni girl. A few months ago, her father married her off to a man more than three times her age. It's not unusual in Yemen, the Middle East country most prone to enabling child marriage: Nearly half of girls younger than 18 are married in Yemen, one of the poorest countries on the planet. The rate is just as high among Palestinian girls, according to the International Center for Research on Women. (The rate is 10 percent in the United States, 77 percent in Niger, 68 percent in Bangladesh, and 50 percent in India).
What routinely follows these marriages is physical and sexual abuse, and what's too euphemistically known as maternal mortality--the death of the mother while giving birth. Girls between 10 and 14 are five times more likely than women ages 20 to 24 to die in pregnancy and childbirth, and twice as likely as older women to die from childbirth and pregnancy between 15 and 19. Nobody protests against early marriage, an ICRW report quotes a Nepalese girl as saying, "because all take daughters as a burden. They fear that their daughters might get involved with other boys and that is why they want their daughters to get married at an early age."
Taking a Stand Against Child Rape
Nojoud did protest. She ran away. She sought help from her uncle and a lawyer, and on April 15, an almost incredulous judge granted her a divorce. "This was the first time a girl came to us for a divorce," Judge Abud Al-Khaleaq Ghowber told the Yemen Times. "We are going to do our best to push the parliament to change the marriage law." But it wasn't as simple as filing for divorce and arguing the case in court. Nojoud had to buy her way back to freedom, which underscores the slavish underside of child marriages. An anonymous donor from the United Arab Emirates put up the money: 100,000 Yemeni Rials, which works out to $500,000. Half a million dollars to secure a child's freedom from bondage and rape, which underscores another horror: what do girls do when they have no uncle, no lawyer, no rich Emirati to run to?
"I hated nights," Nojoud told the newspaper, "because they usually meant that my husband would come to my bed. I used to run from him and he would chase me and beat me and do his thing. I pray that my younger sisters do not face the same fate."
The West Isn't Innocent
The scene might seem entirely alien to Western eyes and ears. But let's not fool ourselves into hiding behind the comforts of stereotype. Nojoud's heartbreaking words reminded me of a passage in one of those quintessential American works, Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road--you know, the 1932 novel about wretchedly poor sharecroppers, and whose stage version was taken to court 36 times and banned in countless cities across the country on grounds of immorality (not inaccuracy).
The scene takes place early in the novel: "What Lov wanted to speak to Jeeter about now in particular was the way Pearl had of refusing to sleep with him." Jeter is Lov's father-in-law. Pearl is 12.
They had been married almost a year, and still she slept by herself, as she had done since the first. She slept by herself on a pallet on the floor, refusing even to let Lov kiss her or touch her in any way. [...] For the past few weeks Lov had been thinking about taking some plow-lines and tying Pearl in bed at night. He had tried everything that he could think of so far, except force, and he was still determined to make her act as he thought a wife should. [...] "Every time I want to have her around me, she runs off and won't come back when I call her. Now, what I say is, what in hell is the sense in me marrying a wife if I don't get none of the benefits."Child marriage in the United States is officially illegal, but not always effectively so, although sensational exceptions to the law tend to divert attention from the more serious, prevalent problem: the sexual abuse of young boys and girls under their own roof, by the people they trust most--parents, siblings, relatives, neighbors, friends.
I note this, along with the Caldwell example, because it would be too convenient to take in the case of Nojoud and child rape (a more accurate term than child marriage) in Yemen or Bangladesh or India as something the more enlightened West has graduated from, when in reality the crime merely occurs in different, less public, less codified circumstances.