LONDON: At two years old, Yemeni filmmaker Khadija Al-Salami witnessed her father beating her mother so violently she was rushed to the emergency room at hospital.
When her father was not punished, and Al-Salami was married off at the age of 11, she rebelled and started using a camera to expose girls’ suffering in Yemen, where one in three are wed before they turn 18, campaign group Girls Not Brides data shows.
“I use the camera as a tool to fight,” Al-Salami, now 48, said in a phone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Paris, where she is now based, ahead of her appearance at Fortune Most Powerful Women International Summit.
“When you grow up in a very conservative society, where the weight of tradition marginalizes human rights, and the personal freedom of women doesn’t exist … you’re only left with one choice: and that’s to revolt against it.”
One of almost 50 accomplished women speaking at the London event, Al-Salami is feted as one of Yemen’s first female filmmakers, with her stories of girls who have refused to wear the veil, faced trial for murder and marched on the streets.
In Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, 32% of girls become wives before their 18th birthday, and almost 10% are married by the time they turn 15, according to Girls Not Brides.
“Women unfortunately are abused everywhere in a different way. We need everybody’s help, to get together and fight these bad traditions,” award-winning Al-Salami said.
“I was able to overcome all these difficulties. That’s given me a lot of force to do something for other people who are afraid to speak up.”
Al-Salami was granted a divorce after attempting suicide, disowned by her family for shaming them, and moved to the United States when she was 16 to study.
But she regularly returns to her home country to make films — mostly in secret — to spotlight taboo women’s rights issues.
Al-Salami shared a stage at the summit with Helle Thorning-Schmidt, head of the charity Save the Children, who called for an end to Yemen’s ongoing conflict, which began in late 2014.
“Yemen is perhaps the worst place to be a child right now,” Thorning-Schmidt, who was Denmark’s first female prime minister, told the audience.
“Children in Yemen are dying from hunger. I sat with one of those children in my arms, she was eight months old but she had the weight of a newborn.”
More than 12 million children in Yemen need aid, and 360,000 of those under five are severely malnourished, according to the United Nations’ children’s agency, UNICEF.
“What’s going on now with Yemen and with the war for the last five years, my heart is broken. The whole population is under bombs and they’re just trying to find shelter and the most basic thing in order to survive,” said Al-Salami.
Despite the violence, Thorning-Schmidt said the children she met in Yemen last year still dreamed of change.
“Little girls … they always say, ‘I want to go to school, I don’t want to marry’. Whatever they’d been through, there’s still that glimmer of hope in their eyes,” she said.