British-born Gabriella Gillespie thought she was going on vacation.
In fact, her father was taking the 13-year-old and her sisters from their home in Wales to his native Yemen, where one-by-one, he sold them into marriage.
“We had been tricked into thinking this was going to be a fantastic holiday, but now it was anything but a holiday,” Gillespie writes in her memoir, “A Father’s Betrayal,” which goes on sale Friday. “ . . . I began to realise what had happened to us: we had been kidnapped!”
What followed that horrifying revelation were years of fear, heartache and abuse, meted out largely by her father and second husband. Gillespie, now 50 and living in Bristol, England, said she wrote the memoir hoping it would inspire other young girls to speak up before they are forced into marriages.
Gillespie married first at 13 and then again at 14 after her first husband, Mana, died six weeks after their wedding. She endured 17 years in a violent marriage, fleeing with her five children only after her husband announced plans to marry off their oldest daughter, who was still a child.
She found refuge at the British Embassy in Yemen and returned to England, the country of her birth, not long after. This week, she participates in the British Government’s Girl Summit 2014 in London, where an abridged version of the Too Young to Wed exhibit is on display as well. The event is designed to rally global support for ending child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), and even those who can’t get to London to participate in-person can pledge their support online.
Below, Gillespie shares several excerpts from her book, chronicling the anguish she, her sisters and even a cousin suffered as child brides.
“It will always be a part of who I was, but I’m not that girl anymore,” she told Britain’s Daily Mail. “I know I’m a strong person and I hope I can show other girls that no matter how long it takes, no matter how bad things get, things can change if you stay strong. . . . I needed to start speaking out about what happened to us so that this never happens again.”
After Gillespie’s first husband died, she was returned to her father’s house to await another arranged marriage. But first, a shocking discovery.
“When did you have your last period?” she asked. I tried to think back but I couldn’t.
“I don’t know. Why?” I asked, confused why she was asking about my periods.
“Muna, you could be pregnant!” she gasped. I looked at Yas who looked even more confused than me.
“No I’m not! Anyway, what’s my period got to do with getting pregnant?” I asked.
“Yeah, what’s her period got to do with it?” Yas asked. Nebat explained to us that if a girl misses her period it means she could be pregnant. I couldn’t think back to when I had my last period, but I knew that since being married, I hadn’t had one. Nebat called Gran and told her, and then Gran called for Dad.
Nebat went on to tell me that if I was pregnant with Mana’s baby then that changed everything. If Mana’s parents wanted to take care of me and the child, then they could. All they would have to do is agree to financially provide for both us for the rest of our lives. However, she told me that this very rarely happened in Yemen. Usually the baby would be allowed to stay with its mother until a certain age before it’s taken off her and given to the father’s family so that the mother can remarry.
Although the thought of being pregnant at 13 terrified me, I was praying that I was pregnant. I didn’t know anything about being pregnant or having children, but I felt in my heart that Mana’s family were good people and would take care of me if I had his child. I would rather live as a widow forever, bringing up my child, knowing that I was close to my sister, than spend another day with this family of mine!
Gillespie and her sisters were not the only child brides in the family. Their cousin, Farouse, who was about 12, was also married. “She used to be so full of life and energy, so funny and mischievous,” Gillespie recalled in an email. “Until her wedding.”
Farouse looked gorgeous in her wedding dress that Ahmed had brought from Japan, and it fitted her beautifully. The afternoon went well and as we left, she told us she was going to try and allow him to touch her again that night. The next morning we found out that when her husband tried to touch her, Farouse started screaming and wouldn’t stop.
When we went to see her that afternoon she looked scared and told us she couldn’t do it. She said she knew it would hurt because all her friends had told her so and she was scared. We tried to comfort her, but we could tell that nothing we said or did could reassure her that everything would be OK. After the third day we would find out just how cruel Yemeni culture could be towards young girls who said no.
On the fourth day Al Mouzayna was brought back into Farouse’s house, accompanied by another woman most females referred to as “The evil witch doctor!” Together they took Farouse away in a Jeep, accompanied by Ahmed and his mother. We were told they were taking Farouse to hospital to find her some medicine to help her relax a little bit because she had become hysterical every time Ahmed tried to touch her.
They returned a day later, but we weren’t allowed to see our cousin for a couple of days. When we finally saw her, she looked as if she had been beaten. She was full of bruises. We hugged and cried together while she told us how she had been taken to a house where she was held down by those women and her mother-in-law.
They stripped her naked, then tied her to a chair where Ahmed raped her to prove her virginity, and then he raped and beat her over and over again until she agreed never to disobey him again!
Farouse looked different; her innocence had been taken, and her spirit broken! When Ahmed’s mother came into the room offering drinks, I looked into her eyes and saw the evil that Farouse had spoken of. I tried to understand how one female could do that to another. This woman had daughters of her own! Did she not worry that the same thing could happen to them?