Nada al-Ahdal escaped child marriage in her home country of Yemen at 10 years old. She made an online video about her situation, which went viral. Now based in London, she is a leading activist against child marriage.
I grew up in Yemen. Like any ordinary child my dreams were to get an education and become a doctor or a teacher, the things normal children dream about. The day came when my life changed forever. I was to be a bride at the age of 10.
I didn’t understand what child marriage was, but I was aware how dangerous it was through seeing its victims. My aunt was 14 years old when she burned herself in order to escape her violent husband. She didn’t escape; she died, leaving behind a daughter. When my sister was told she would be a wife at 13, she told my parents if they forced her to marry, she would do as my aunt did. No one believed her and she burned her body when she was 14. As she recovered from her injuries, my family decided that I would be the replacement bride for her husband.
I ran away to the Yemeni Ministry of Interior and explained what I was going through. This is when I made the video decrying child marriage that went viral across the world. I had made the video to reach my uncle, to tell him what was going on. I didn’t expect that the world would react in that way, but I’m glad that my voice arrived to everyone who doesn’t know about this crime that goes on in my country. I ran away to my uncle, who was famous in my family for being the first person to help if any girl wants an education. I believed he would understand my situation and save me from marriage.
Because I spoke out about this I became a controversial figure. I began speaking publicly about my experience and was detained by the Minister of the Interior in Yemen; I was coming back from Lebanon where I did a TV interview, and upon my return my passport was taken. I was detained and forced to sign a document saying I wouldn’t appear in the media.
They wanted to cover up the truth about child marriage. It felt unsafe to speak out. I came out of this crisis and turned my suffering into strength. I became a fighter against all this with power and faith. I thought the Yemeni community would help me and respond well; I didn’t want to be a victim. I didn’t get the support I was expecting. Instead I received threatening messages. I faced many hard times there.
At this point I had written a book which is printed in many different languages telling my story. I was invited to a book signing in France. The war had forced the airport to close so the only way to get there was to fly through the capital city of Yemen, Aden. When me and my uncle arrived, we were kidnapped by Al-Qaeda. For the first three days we were blindfolded and didn’t see the light. We were interrogated and after 14 days we were released; the governor of Aden had been assassinated and Al-Qaeda had to change location.
After we were released, me and my uncle went to Saudi-Arabia. At this time I started to believe I should do something to show the truth about victims of child marriage. I met the Prime Minister of Yemen, and with his support I founded the Nada Foundation. We started many programmes to take care of girls from child marriages. After setting up the foundation, I was moving from country to country for years. I didn’t have a country of my own which I felt safe in.
I have met so many brave girls from across the world; Serbia, Pakistan, India, Morocco, Egypt. They are working so hard to change their communities. It’s not just their duty, it’s all of us, all of our duty.
Around this time I was searching for a safe place to live. Eventually I couldn’t go back to Yemen, or any other country. I’m so active on social media talking about honour crimes and child marriage that none of those countries would take me back. I claimed asylum in London and got refugee status. I’m now studying in college and volunteering for Action Foundation. I’m opening my foundation in London too.
There is still no law in Yemen to protect girls from child marriage. These girls need a change. I had a chance to live. Because I rejected marriage, I should help as many people as I can raise their voices to the world. I will talk for the girls, be their voices, I really believe in that.
Aside from the support of my uncle, what kept me going on my journey has been the stories and messages I’ve received on social media; how many girls have gone through unimaginable suffering. As long as I have the opportunity to survive, others need that opportunity too. The victims of this crime are what motivates me to keep going.
Wherever I go in the world I always bring my camera and laptop. I love to record the differences between countries. It’s also important to me to bring a pen and paper when I speak at events. I like to write ‘Child Marriage’ on the paper then tear it in half and separate those words. Those words mean a lot to me.
Arriving in the UK, what shocked me was that people here don’t know anything about child marriage. I believe I should spread more information so people can see the full picture of what it means. Change will happen when you start to raise your voice and speak.
Healing takes time. After I escaped marriage, I began to worry about my younger sisters. When my life was saved, my family signed a document saying they wouldn’t marry me to anyone until I was 18. I started worrying about my sisters. They are 12 and 10. They could be brides tomorrow.
I tried for a long time to convince my family that child marriage is not a family problem; it’s a global problem. They were sure that my aunt and sister were both family problems, that they weren’t prepared for marriage. With my uncle’s support we convinced them. They began to support me and my sisters, and my activism. Now, they say to me, don’t stop, they need you. I’m proud of them. I needed to feel my sisters were safe. The fact I managed to convince them to support me has helped me turn my suffering to strength instead of pain.
The kidnapping affected me, but I try so hard to work for these girls. I imagine them in worse situations than my own and it makes me take action. Our foundation has helped hundreds of girls already. I have tried to heal myself by not running away, not trying to find a normal life. Instead I have worked on this issue. I can see huge changes and I’m proud.
When I was constantly moving around I couldn’t study for high school. At that time I used my free time to teach myself English. Now in the UK, I’m studying for ESOL. After that I’ll do GCSEs then A levels. I want to study international law and become a lawyer. I want to focus on my education now. I still use social media for my human rights activism. I believe deeply in its value. I look back at my own story of sharing that video and the impact it had on my life. It’s important to connect with them on social media to say, ‘You are not alone – we are with you’.
Watch the video Nada made when first ran away to escape her marriage, aged only 13.