At just 10 years old, Yemeni activist Nada Al Ahdal learned she was to be married to a man more than twice her age. Unlike millions of other young girls worldwide, she was able to escape this fate.
"My aunt killed herself when she was 13 because of the abuse she suffered at the hands of the man she'd been forced to marry," Ms Al Ahdal, now 16, tells The National in Jordan's capital Amman.
“When my sister found out she would be married at the age of 12, she tried to kill herself too by setting herself alight.”
Ms Al Ahdal's parents decided she would take her sister's place because the heavy scarring from the suicide attempt had made her sister "unsuitable" for the marriage. Terrified, she ran away with the help of an uncle who later became her official guardian.
During her escape, she published a video on YouTube explaining that her parents were trying to force her into marriage. It was shared 8 million times in just three days, highlighting her plight and raising international awareness about child marriage.
However, the video sparked controversy in Yemen, where she was arrested by state officials and held for 10 days in 2013 after speaking out publicly against child marriage. She was detained again a few weeks later after speaking about the issue on a Lebanese television programme.
Now the founder of the Nada Foundation, which provides education to thousands of girls in Yemen, she is working to raise awareness about child marriage, which affects 12 million girls each year across every region of the world, according to global platform Girls Not Brides.
Ms Ahdal's story is unique but child marriage is an all-too-common problem in Jordan, the country where she now spends most of her time. There are about 10,000 marriages each year in which one of the partners is below the age of 18, according to Jordan’s Supreme Judge Department. In 2017, out of a total of 77,700 marriages there were 10,434 involving minors.
And the numbers are on the rise again, according to Unicef, after a decline between 2007 and 2012 – an increase in part linked to the vast number of Syrians who have sought refuge in Jordan from their country's civil war.
“The major issue is the lack of awareness around child marriage and the impact it has on girls’ education. We start to think girls are less able to be successful, that receiving an education is not important for girls,” says Ms Al Ahdal.
General manager of the Jordanian Women’s Union, Nadia Shamroukh, says the impact on girls’ education is unforgivable.
“Education is available for single women, not for those who are married. This means these girls don’t have the same opportunities, both in terms of having a childhood and education.
"We also need mothers to set a strong example for the following generations – how can they do that if they’re married young,” she says, adding that child marriage is prevalent in poorer communities.
The legal age for marriage in Jordan is 18, but there is a minimum age of 15 for exceptional cases. Last April, Jordan’s parliament voted against raising the minimum age from 15 to 16.
“We are still suffering, the law is not working,” says Ms Shamroukh. “This need for ‘exceptions’ comes from a fear of what will be done with these girls who are raped and pregnant. Abortion is illegal in Jordan and the state removes babies from mothers if born outside of marriage.”
The repeal of Article 308 in 2017 – legislation that allowed rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims – was deemed a breakthrough for women’s rights in Jordan. But Huda Al Zoubi, projects development and fundraising manager at the Solidarity Is Global Institute (Sigi), is sceptical about the long-lasting impact this has had on combating child marriage.
“In the case of child marriage, the consent of the minor is not taken into consideration. It comes down to the decision of the family and the biggest issue we face is the mindset and the culture,” she says.
“We’re aware that when families are refused marriage under exceptional circumstances [when the child is aged between 15 and 18] they go to other cities where the judge may be more inclined to give permission.”
If they are still unable to carry out a civil ceremony, she says families turn to religious ceremonies instead, which is punishable by a fine, or jail time if they are not able to pay. Children of couples married through religious-only ceremonies are not registered and therefore denied access to education.
Sigi has found many cases where both the bride and groom were under 18, including 433 in 2017, most of which were not civil ceremonies.
The institute is working with Jordanian communities to highlight the health risks posed by underage marriage and the right to education. According to the World Health Organisation, girls aged 10 to 19 face the highest risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
“It’s a mindset issue. If we are working on the mindset then we can work on the legislation,” says Ms Al Zoubi.
“A judge who attended one of our events said he would never allow his daughter to marry underage but admitted he sometimes felt obligated to give permission to other girls under 18. For a girl with no parents he felt this was a good opportunity for her,” she adds.
“We need to raise awareness on a regional level because it’s not just a problem here in Jordan.”