The little girl was waist-high, so small that the lawyers, clerks and judges hurrying through the courthouse in Sana'a, Yemen, almost missed her.

As lunchtime arrived and the crowds of noisy men and women cleared away, a curious judge asked her what she was doing sitting alone on a bench.

“I came to get a divorce,'' 10-year-old Nujood Ali told the jurist.
Her impoverished parents had married her off to a man more than three times her age, who beat her and forced her to have sex, she explained.

When she told her father and mother that she wanted out of the marriage, they refused to help. So an aunt provided her with bus money to travel to court and seek a divorce.

Within days of that April 2 encounter, Nujood's tale and the plight of child brides in Yemen made international headlines.

And thanks to the efforts of human rights lawyer Shada Nasser, who took up her cause, the girl at the centre of the story has begun to overcome her trauma and dream of a better life.

Yemeni law sets the age of consent at 15. But tribal customs and interpretations of Islam often trump the law in the country of 23 million.

A 2006 study conducted by Sanaa University reported that 52 per cent of girls were married by age 18.

Publicity surrounding Nujood's case prompted calls to raise the legal age for marriage to 18 for both men and women.

Yemen's conservative lawmakers refused to take up her case but it sparked public discussion and newspaper headlines.

Several more child brides came forward, including a girl who sought a divorce in the southern Yemeni city of Ibb recently.
“This case opened the door,'' Nasser said.

Nujood says that at first she felt ashamed about what had happened to her. “But I passed through that,'' she said, eyes narrowing in her black headscarf.

“All I want now is to finish my education,'' she added, her mouth curling into a smile. “I want to be a lawyer.''

Nujood's unemployed father, Ali Mohammad Ahdal, has two wives and 16 children. He is among the many tribal Yemenis who migrated to the capital over the last decades looking for work. Instead, he found misery.

In February, Ahdal arranged to have Nujood married to Faez Ali Thamer, motorcycle deliveryman in his thirties from his native province, Hajja.

Protector turns persecutor

Nujood's parents said they were trying to do what was best for their daughter and didn't even receive a dowry, a claim many Yemenis don't believe.

The parents say the groom had promised he wouldn't have sex with her until she reached puberty.

“We asked him to raise her,'' said Shu'aieh, the girl's mother.
The groom has disputed that claim.

Ahdal, in his mid-forties, said he wanted Nujood to avoid the fate of two of his older sisters. One was kidnapped by a rival clan and another ended up in jail for trying to protect her, an example of the murky inter-tribal disputes that bedevil Yemen.

“I was trying to protect her,'' Ahdal said during an interview inside his family's two-room flat on the outskirts of Sana'a.
Nujood looked forward to getting married, not understanding what it really meant.

Besides being a pre-adolescent bride, she is a fairly typical little girl. She likes playing hide-and-seek and tug-of-war with her friends and siblings.

Her favourite colours are red and yellow, she said, and her favourite flavours are chocolate and coconut. She loves dogs and cats and dreams of being a turtle so she could swim in the sea. “I've never seen the sea,'' she says.

About 40 people attended the wedding in the village of Wadi La'a, where the groom lived. As a wedding gift, she received three new dresses and a $20 wedding ring. She was to live with him and his family.

The trouble started on the first night, when he demanded that they share a mattress. She resisted, walking out of the room, only to have him follow.

Sometimes he beat her into submission. For weeks, she cried all day and dreaded the nights, when he would enter the room, blow out the oil lamp and demand sex.

“I asked him not to sleep next to me,'' she recalls. “He told me: ‘No, we sleep together in the same room. Your father agreed to accept me as a husband.'''

On a visit to her parents' house back in the capital weeks later, she wept that her husband was doing unmentionable things to her. Her father claimed there was nothing he could do.

“My cousins would have killed me if I brought dishonour to the family by asking for a divorce,'' he said.

But her mother's sister discreetly advised her to go to court.
The bewildered judge who found Nujood on the bench decided to bring her to his house for the weekend.

His daughters had a swing and toys she had never seen before. They had satellite television, and for three days she feasted on cartoons.

Once the work week began, the judge dispatched soldiers to arrest Nujood's father and husband. He placed Nujood in the care of an uncle, her mother's brother.

Still the lawyers and judges had no idea how to handle her case. Nujood and her uncle languished in the courthouse for days until a middle-aged woman, the only one in the courthouse without a headdress covering her face, approached them.

“Are you Nujood?'' asked lawyer Shada Nasser, among Yemen's leading women's rights activists. “Are you the one asking for divorce?"

Nujood replied she was.

“I couldn't believe my eyes,'' Nasser said. The girl reminded her of her own daughter, Lamia, 8 years old.

Nasser went to the cell where Thamer, the husband, was being held, and was shocked at the age difference between the two. “Why did you sleep with her?'' she demanded. “She's a little girl.''

He didn't deny it, Nasser recalled. Instead, he complained that Nujood's father had said she was much taller and better looking than she really was.

Nasser vowed to Nujood that she would take her case without pay and that she would take care of her. She took her to her upscale home and offered to let her stay there.

Outraged, Nasser also called her contacts at the Yemen Times, the country's English-language newspaper. The story of the brave little girl who went to court on her own to stand up for her rights captivated the country.

News agencies picked up the story and sent it around the world. By the time a sympathetic judge agreed to hear her case several weeks later, media packed into the courtroom. Verbally, the judge, Mohammad Ghadi, was merciless to the husband.

“You could not find another woman to marry in all of Yemen?'' he demanded of Thamer. But legally, there was little he could do. No provision in Yemeni law provides for enforcement of sexual abuse charges within a marriage.

Not only did the husband and father go free but Thamer demanded $250, the equivalent of four months' salary for a poor Yemeni, to agree to a divorce. A sympathetic lawyer donated the cash.

Nujood was elated. “She was smiling,'' Nasser recalled. “She said, ‘I want chocolate. I want pears, cake and toys.'''

Nurturing hope

Nasser bought her some new clothes. Donations began pouring in, with several wealthy Europeans offering to pay for her education. One newspaper held a big party for her in its office. A Yemeni journalist gave her a mobile phone.

When the controversy died down, Nujood insisted on going back to live with her parents again, most likely because she is very close to her sister Haifa, 8. Her father promised her that he would not marry off her or any of her sisters.

The girl has refused to see a psychologist or a gynaecologist. She says she doesn't like doctors. And besides, she says, the experience has made her stronger and wiser.

She says that she looks forward to beginning the third grade and pursuing dreams she never knew she had.

“I want to defend oppressed people,'' she says. “I want to be like Shada. I want to be an example to the other girls.''