I have been travelling the world with Tamu for a while, and have worked with some women and girls who really know what suffering is. Child marriage was one of the first issues I campaigned about, after working with a 9-year-old girl in Kenya who had been married off to a 54-year-old man. As world-weary as it sounds, these days it is difficult to find a narrative which truly moves me, but when I received an invitation to attend the TEDx Women Muscat conference and saw Nada Al-Ahdal’s name on the list of speakers, I knew her story was going to be something worth hearing.
Standing in the foyer, I spotted this effervescent ball of energy chatting away as she sorted out juices for a group of little girls. “Nada, I have come here to meet you and to say that you are an inspiration to so many people”. She hugged me like an old friend and we talked about how we could collaborate.
In 2013 Nada posted a You Tube video telling the world about the marriage her parents were forcing her into at the age of ten. The two-and-a-half-minute video had 8 million views in three days. She eventually ran away to live with her uncle after her parents’ second attempt to marry her off. She has faced accusations of falsifying her story, and has been threatened and detained.
Nada Al-Ahdal raised discussions of child marriage, and international media organisations such as CNN, the BBC, and The Huffington Post have covered her fight. Now at 15 Nada has established her own foundation to protect children’s rights (www.nadafund.org) which saves many girls from early marriage, brings children back to school, and provides shelters for homeless orphans.
The change Nada’s foundation is trying to bring to the lives of girls in Yemen was the main topic of her talk at TEDx. Chocking back the tears as she told the stories of the girls she had met during her time in the detention centre, Nada unveiled the face of the tragic denial of children’s rights.
My son turned 11 shortly after I first met Nada. He was fascinated to hear more about her story, and so as to be able to explain it to him better, I sat down to talk with the girl who stood up against child marriage.
Nada, after everything you have been through, your determination to fight for girls’ rights is inspirational. What drives you?
The injustice and violence I experienced caused me a lot of pain, and looking now at the daily news headlines and human rights reports about child marriage, I feel that if I fail to challenge this then the future will be ruined for the generations of girls coming after me.
You are using all kinds of social media to reach out to children/young people, but how do think the older generation can be educated about the human rights abuse of child marriage?
During my campaigns I try to spread the message to all parties involved in the cycle. In addition to all the social media accounts that I use and getting in touch with a few community activists, I also reach out to parents through one-to-one sessions to communicate the right message, stress the importance of child education, and try and limit child abuse. In some situations parents strongly object due to their need of money, so we involve officials to help stop such acts (it helps that Yemen has signed up to the Convention on the Rights of the Child).
You run your projects for girls who have missed out on educational opportunities. Where exactly are you running these projects (as I am sure readers would love to find out more about these so that they can help)?
We have five projects running in five regions of Yemen ( Sanaa, Taozz, Hijja, Al-Dhalea, and Al-Hadediah). Through these projects, which are hosted in different schools, we make sure girls are made aware of the importance of education and study human and children’s rights so that they can defend themselves against forced child marriage.
Other survivors and campaigners against child marriage have said that it took them many years to forgive their parents for what they did. Do you feel that you will ever be able to say the same?
In Yemen cultural constraints and centuries-old traditions dominate our community. As my awareness grew, I realised that my parents were victims just like me, oppressed by a wrong culture, customs, and unfair traditions, so then I decided to forgive them and apologise to them, and now my parents are big supporters of my cause, and support me in my fight to end the marriage of minors.
Yemen is facing an armed conflict on top of other social problems. What do you think is the best way for the international community to help the children of Yemen?
What we need from the international community is support for projects that contribute to raising awareness, support children’s education (with a focus on English language), and provide a quality education, along with an emphasis on the importance of education for girls in particular. Programmes that help young entrepreneurs to be independent, and cope with the outside world, are also vital, as Yemen is so disconnected from other countries, and we have big percentage of children that need to be independent so as to raise the community up to a better level.
CAKE:HOUR profile: Nada Al-Ahdal
Brown honey cake
Nelson Mandela & Angelina Jolie
Drawing and reading books about inspiring people who changed lives.
There is much re-posting of pictures of the crisis in Yemen on social media (accompanied by wringing of hands), and raising awareness is by no means a bad thing, but if Nada, at the age of 15, can make a real stand, why can’t we all do something significant…?