The medals from her many awards hang on the walls of her home as Reem Al Numery takes our international call with a grace and maturity rare for someone her age. She’s just 12 years old, but she’s already been married and divorced.
Reem was playing in the street of her Yemen neighborhood just a few months after her 10th birthday when a cousin three times her age took her to her grandfather’s house and immediately married her. Though her mother objected to the union, her father consented.
“I was a little girl,” Reem explained with the help of a translator. “I was not fit for marriage, but I was poor.”
According to a 2001 UNICEF report, in many parts of the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia, economic factors mean that the marriage of young children, mostly girls, is an all too common practice. That same report says that 17% of girls age 15 to 19 in Reem’s home country of Yemen were married in 2004.
Yet Reem’s story has one key difference from that of many of her peers who also marry young: She successfully negotiated her divorce.
After only one week of marriage, Reem knew she had to escape, alleging that her new husband beat and shackled her just to get her into the taxi to bring her home after the wedding.
But divorcing as a child bride would prove more difficult than marrying.
“When I tried to get a divorce they said I couldn’t, that I was too young, and I said, ‘How come you didn’t say I was too young to get married?’”
It would take two years of legal battles, but Reem, with the help of her lawyer Shada Nasser, the international media, and a high-placed government official, convinced the judge to grant her a divorce.
Shada Nasser had experience in child marriage cases. She represented another girl, Nujood Ali, in her divorce case in 2008. Like Reem, Nujood was forced to marry when she was only 10 and ran away from the husband she says abused her.
Both Reem and Nujood’s cases received significant media attention in Yemen and around the world. Reem was one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2009, the same year she was named an International Woman of Courage by the US State Department. Nujood was one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year in 2008, and she’s recently co-authored the book I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced with a French journalist. Both girls are considered activists against early marriage.
But both girls cite increasing frustration following their international successes. Before her book was released and royalties helped ease her family’s financial situation, CNN interviewed
Nujood for an article and reported that she was “bitter,” longing to return to school, and frustrated that the international media attention hadn’t translated into financial help for her family.
Reem is similarly upset by the aftermath of her court case. She has been unable to attend school because she cannot afford transportation fees. She told us she desperately wants to study English and eventually become a doctor.
“I am so frustrated,” she said. “I see girls who are able to study and able to speak English and I am not. I would like for someone to help me.”
But there’s one form of help she isn’t interested in—a new husband. “I don’t want to go through the same ordeal again,” she adds. “I won’t think about marriage until I’ve finished school, so I can make a future for myself.”
If there is a silver lining to Reem and Nujood’s cases, it’s that Yemen has increased the legal age for marriage to 17.
Reem believes that politicians have done all they can to prevent child marriage and it’s now the responsibility of fathers and would-be husbands. She advises families to delay marriage and girls to stay in school.
“Marriage is a responsibility,” she said. “And girls need to first live their childhoods.”