A misguided protest against child marriage in Yemen turns into another form of exploitation

August 2, 2013 12:28 pm 1 comment Views: 8328

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On July 8, the media was taken by storm when Nada Al-Ahdal, an 11-year-old schoolgirl from Yemen confessed on video that she had run away from her parents’ home to escape the horrors of a forced marriage.

Plagued by unrest, poverty and deep social divisions, Yemen, the most populous and poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula, has battled issues related to child marriages for well over a decade. Activists are working tirelessly toward the establishment of legislation that would ensure children’s protection and still fall in line with clerical interpretation of the Holy Scriptures on marriage and consent.

Needless to say, Nada’s bold testimony hit a nerve, sending shockwaves across Yemen’s human rights circles and the media, as once again the country found itself caught in a storm of controversy.

Within days of the uploading of her video, Nada’s story had gone viral. At time of writing, her YouTube video has been viewed 7,772,156 times. News organizations across the world vilified her parents for having attempted to sell their little girl to a man who was willing to stoop so low he would consider a marital union with a child. Her uncle, Abdel Salam Al-Ahdal, a montage and graphics technician at a TV station, was held up as a hero for having offered Nada a safe haven in his home, away from harm and abuse.

In the video, translated by MEMRI, a Middle East media watchdog, Nada talks of her escape from her parents’ home after they tried to marry her to a much older man. She said: “I can’t live with them anymore. Enough! . . . What about the innocence of childhood? What have the children done wrong? Why do you marry them off like that?”

Recalling how her 14-year-old aunt endured a year of abuse at the hands of her older husband before she was driven to suicide, Nada defiantly warned she would never let herself become another statistic on child marriage.

“My mother, my family, believe me when I say: I’m done with you, you’ve ruined my dreams,” she declared, decrying the threats her parents made against her person if she resisted their decision.

In truth, child marriage is a very serious issue indeed—one which deserves and requires much attention because it involves a harrowing and despicable form of abuse. Any allegation or report of such abuse should be treated with care and diligence, so as not to allow false reports to trivialize the issue.

Too busy reporting on a trend very few news organizations previously thought to investigate, many forgot to do any fact-checking on Nada’s allegations. As it turned out, they should have.

Alerted by Seyaj—Yemen’s most prominent children’s rights organization—the authorities immediately assigned a task force to investigate the claims of child abuse, not willing to take Nada’ statement at face value.

The interior ministry confirmed that its preliminary investigation has established that, contrary to her claims, Nada had never approached the authorities with regard to her abuse.

Moreover, for the past 18 months, Nada has been living with her paternal uncle, Abdel Salam Al-Ahdal. She never ran away to his house, as she stated in the video—she was already under his care.

Most disturbingly yet, Seyaj says its investigations indicate that Nada had been coerced by her uncle into making the video as part of a scam to turn the young school girl into Yemen’s new Nujood, gain fame and make a profit. Nujood was a young girl who rose to fame in 2008 when, at the age of 8, she bravely refused to tolerate abuse from her husband and asked a judge to grant her a divorce.

Well-versed in the way the media operates, Nada’s uncle sought to cash in on his niece’s fabricated plight, hoping she would become the country’s new poster child against child marriage.

Now in the care of the Yemen Women’s Union, the authorities are looking to transfer Nada back into her parents’ custody, away from the prying eye of the media.

Ramizia Al-Eryani, the president of the Yemen Women’s Union said that Nada had been pressed to falsely accuse her parents. She said she was angry with the media, as their irresponsible reporting would harm real victims of abuse by raising some questions over the veracity of others’ claims. She worried that it would not only empower abusers, but potentially prevent victims from coming forward out of fear of both the media and social stigma.

Seyaj issued the following statement on Thursday: “Nada’s claims that she was to be married are not real. Nada tried to exploit the public’s opinion for personal and financial gain, hoping that, like Nujood before her, her story would grant her status. Nada is not a victim of child marriage!”

Officials from the interior ministry also categorically rejected Nada’s claims, declaring that the evidence points to the same conclusion: Nada lied.

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