Sunday, June 22, 2008

"I came to get a divorce"

So said the diminutive 10-year-old to the judge who discovered her sitting alone on a bench in the courthouse. In Yemen, the legal age of consent is 15 but custom often prevails, meaning girls like Nujood Ali are married well before then. The beginning of her story may be fairly typical: poor family marries her off to a man in his mid-thirties who, the parents say, promised not to sleep with her until she reached puberty (though she would likely still be a child under age 15 at that point). He broke that promise on their wedding night and many nights thereafter, sometimes beating her until she accepted to have sex with him. When she complained to her parents, they refused to intervene. But Nujood's story has an unexpected twist: a maternal aunt gave her bus fare to go to court and ask for a divorce, which she did. An outraged judge had the father and husband arrested, but sexual abuse within a marriage is not a crime in Yemen (nor, apparently, is marrying or marrying off a child under age 15), so the 2 men went free. After the father agreed to pay the husband $250 (roughly 4 months' salary), Nujood got her divorce--and a lot of publicity, which has led other child brides (image credit) to come forward to obtain divorces (failing that, such girls could obtain refugee status in France as members of the identifiable group of those seeking to avoid or get out of a forced marriage). For the time being, Nujood insists on living with her family and her father has promised not to marry off her or any of her sisters. Looking forward to entering 3rd grade, Nujood plans to finish her education and become a lawyer like the woman who represented her, "to defend oppressed people" and be, as she already has been, "an example for all the other girls."

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