Nujood Ali was 10 when she hailed a cab to the courthouse in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a in April 2008.
Only two months earlier, her father had married her off to a man three times her age, and every day—and every night—since had been a nightmare.
She did not intend to become a cause célèbre that afternoon. She simply wanted a divorce and said as much to the first judge who acknowledged her presence.
But in Yemen—where child marriage is common but divorce considerably less so—Nujood’s case got people talking. Soon enough, her story made international headlines.
In countries where child marriage was uncommon or even nonexistent, Nujood’s tale raised awareness of the practice and the dangers associated with it. And in places like Yemen where plenty of girls shared her plight, it inspired other child brides to speak up for their rights.
Roughly 32 percent of Yemeni girls are married before they turn 18, according to the latest statistics gathered by the UNFPA. Most of them stay married, whether they want to or not.
What made Nujood’s case so different? It would be impossible to overstate the courage of an impoverished 10-year-old girl who would set off alone in her very first cab ride to a packed courthouse in Sana’a and demand a divorce. But her courage was only the starting point. She was helped along the way by a number of factors.
Playing a minor but crucial role was Nujood’s stepmother, who heard the girl’s complaints of being beaten and raped by her husband and urged her to take her case the courthouse. It was an incredibly bold suggestion, and risky at that. Unsympathetic court officials could have branded the child a runaway and returned her to her abuser. Instead, Nujood encountered a judge who was so stunned by her tenacity that he gave her safe harbor and had her father and husband arrested.
Next, she found a lawyer—Sana’a’s first female lawyer—willing to take her case for free. Shada Nasser had heard the hubbub at the courthouse surrounding the little girl’s efforts and thought she had a solid case. While child marriage is common in Yemen, the law insists that husbands wait for their wives to reach puberty before consummating the marriage.
Nujood’s husband hadn’t waited. So Nasser argued that the marriage violated Yemeni law because Nujood had been raped. Two weeks after she took that cab to the courthouse—and two months after she was married—Nujood was granted a divorce.
It was a landmark case that inspired at least three other child brides to reach out to Nasser, who took their cases.
“I am happy because I was able to help all the girls here in Yemen,” Nasser told Joshua Hersh for a New Yorker article in March 2010. “Since Nujood, I’ve been in touch with other girls asking about divorce. It’s like you open the window for all of the girls to go and complain, and that makes me very happy.”
Last—and perhaps most important for the millions of girls around the world in Nujood’s position—people were willing to listen to her story, share it and act on it. News organizations around the globe spread the tale of the little girl who battled tradition—and won. Nujood was hailed as one of Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year in 2008.
French journalist Delphine Minoui then worked with Nujood on an autobiography titled “I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced.” It was published in France in January 2009 and then in at least 20 different languages, including English.
Nujood was one of 16 children, and her father insisted that one of the reasons he married her off was because the family couldn’t afford to keep her. Proceeds from the book sales have helped Nujood’s family, eliminating any financial need to marry her or any of her sisters off any time soon. And the income has helped keep Nujood in school.
Her dream now? To become a lawyer.
“I want to defend oppressed people,” she told the L.A. Times. “I want to be like Shada. I want to be an example for all the other girls.”