She became the poster girl for children in her position around the world and a recent book, translated into 30 languages – I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced. She is now back with her family and has returned to school.
But many young women in the region are not as fortunate as Nujood Ali, and the evidence shows that in fact the trend of marrying off young girls shows no sign of abating.
In a project for National Geographic magazine, journalist Cynthia Gorney and photographer Stephanie Sinclair travelled to Yemen and Rajasthan in India to investigate the extent of this shocking practice.
In India girls may not legally marry before the age of 18 – but ceremonies involving girls in their teens may be overlooked. The younger daughters, some aged five, tend to be added on discreetly, their names kept off the invitations.
Their names kept off invitations. To avoid embarrassment or to avoid arrest? Yet if that is the case, this implies that even those individuals who participate in this process are somewhat aware of the social infractures such practices create- and yet they persist? Why?
Not all girls have such a lucky escape. Few who are married off as children have any chance of an education but there are far worse consequences.
Many are raped and have a low life expectancy due to the number of children they carry at such a young age.
Girls suffer physical abuse and are too frightened to escape because they are threatened with death.
In another case in Yemen, it was discovered that a ten-year-old girl Ayesha had been married off to a 50-year-old man.
The journalists were told by her sister Fatima that ‘little Ayesha screamed when she saw the man she was to marry’.
And did the screams help?
Someone alerted the police, but Ayesha’s father ordered her to put on high heels to look taller and a veil to hide her face.
He warned that if he was sent to jail, he would kill Ayesha when he got out. The police left without troubling anyone and Ayesha now lives in a village two hours away with her husband.
But if this is their lot, surely there must be something one can do? Or are we just to shrug our collective shoulders and exclaim it’s none of our business?
Molly Melching, the founder of a Senegal-based organisation Tostan, told National Geographic: ‘If we separate a girl and isolate her from her community, what will her life be like?
‘You don’t want to encourage girls to run away. The way you change social norms is not by fighting them or humiliating people and saying they’re backward. We’ve seen that an entire community can choose very quickly to change. It’s inspiring.’
All of which begs the question how does one begin to change conceptions towards women? And as far away as this all is from the modern life of most western states if one looks closely the implied message is the same- women are ultimately at the discretion of a patriarchal society who deems a women valuable and worthy of our collective respect as long as she accords herself to preferred preconceptions, the correct nail polish color, hairstyle, superhero boyfriend, pumped up breasts, demure sensibilities, points of views and usefulness. Which is to say she is as useful as men deem her. Assuming women continue to acquiesce to such stereotypes, and given the current billboard landscapes that isn’t about to change (yet).
She may be 5 in Yemen and 25 in New York City, but the question remains-have women really found their liberty or must they still play up to respective stereo images and social doctrines? At least in New York City a woman is free to choose who she begets with, but not necessarily free to beget the system. Or is she? But then again what choice does a girl as 5 or 8 really have…?