DUBAI—After months of being raped and beaten by her husband, Nujood Ali decided that enough was enough and took a taxi on her own to a local courthouse in Yemen in order to get a divorce.
She was just 10 years old.
Nujood was the first of three child brides in recent months to obtain a divorce in the hardline Islamic country.
Their stories have sparked a campaign in the country to end the practice of child marriage which is increasingly being seen as the product of poverty and the inability of families to support their own children.
Yemeni women are taken from school at a young age and forced to give birth before their bodies are ready.
The average age of marriage in Yemen's rural areas is 12 to 13, a recent study by Sana University researchers found. The country, at the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.
But despite moral outrage against the practice change has been hampered by the role of tradition. Hardliners highlight how the Prophet Mohammad took a bride of nine years old.
Nujood’s story began in February this year when her father took her to the Yemeni capital Sana’a, to be married to 30-year-old Faez Ali Thamer.
At the age of nine, on the first night of her married life, her husband raped her. Later he started to beat her.
Her father, an impoverished street sweeper, had thought it better that she be married early than suffer the same fate as her sisters—being kidnapped in their teens and forcibly married.
Although she complained regularly to her family they said they could do nothing about the marriage as to help her divorce would bring shame to the family. Finally, her uncle advised her to go to court.
It was on April 2 that she walked out onto the street and hailed a taxi. When she arrived at the courtroom proceedings had finished, but instead of sending her back to the abuse she would face at home a shocked judge took her into his house for the evening. Her husband and father were arrested the same evening in order to guarantee that they would appear in court the next day.
Her application for divorce was granted immediately upon her request in the next day’s session.
Since then she has become the figurehead of a growing campaign to ban the practice. Just one month later she was joined by nine-year-old Arwa Abdu Muhammad Ali, whose case came to light after she ran to a local hospital and complained that her husband had beaten and raped her for the last eight months.
Around the same time, a 12-year-old known only as ‘Reem’ managed to secure a divorce from her husband.
A 1992 Yemeni law set the minimum legal age of marriage at 15. But in 1998, the government revised it, allowing girls to be married earlier as long as they did not move in with their husbands until they reached sexual maturity.
Last month the three girls’ return was celebrated at a press conference held by human rights activists and journalists calling for the abolition of child marriage.
“We are celebrating the return of these three girls to their childhood, to their toys, games and smiles,” said lawmaker Abdul Bari Dughaish, a campaigner in government for new laws outlawing the practice. “They were kidnapped and now they are released.”