Tag Archives: Yemen
By Gabriella Gillespie, child marriage survivor and member of Too Young to Wed’s Board of Advisers
When I first came across Stephanie Sinclair’s pictures a few years ago, my heart slowed down for a moment; it was as though I was reliving old memories, memories I didn’t want to remember.
Now I can look at Steph’s photos and see both the beauty and pain she captures in her pictures. I see the beauty within certain traditions and cultures of marriage, but mostly, I see the pain and harm that comes from the barbaric practice that is child/forced marriage.
Stephanie’s work not only shows us how so many different countries around the world still practice child/forced marriage today, but also the horrendous consequences facing those of us who have lived through it, or are still living through it at this very moment in time. Without the help of nonprofits like Too Young to Wed, more and more girls will be left to grow up in a lifetime of abuse. Child marriage is one of the worse Human Rights Violations facing young girls in the world today.
I know only too well about child marriage and the scars it leaves behind. In 1977, my sisters and I were taken from our home in the UK to Yemen by our father. Once there, we were all sold as child brides. I was barely 13 years old. Soon after my marriage, I became a Mother.
Child brides go through so much abuse; they are tortured on a daily basis. I use the word torture because that’s how I felt when I woke up every morning knowing that the day ahead would be full of abuse.
I lost one of my sisters to suicide in Yemen. Her name was Izzy, and the thought of living a lifetime of abuse became too much for her when my father sold her to a 60-year-old man. She committed suicide on her wedding day.
I witnessed very little girls become child brides and mothers. Almost every girl in the rural village where I lived was married around the same age as I was, even younger. It was difficult to know their ages because they had no birth certificates, so no one knew how old they were.
There were almost no schools in the villages for them to learn, and the few schools that existed only allowed boys to attend. How are girls able to learn and thrive in life if they are not allowed to attend school?
Growing up, the village’s girls didn’t know about reproductive health. They had absolutely no clue what a period was or what was happening to their bodies. Their first night as a child bride is the most terrifying experience of their lives because they have no clue what will happen to them; they know nothing about sex or what happens between men and women. Almost every girl is raped on her first night of marriage, and this continues throughout the marriage.
I was lucky. I managed to escape with my five children thanks to the help of the British Embassy in 1992. There were no organizations around to help us in Yemen back when we were child brides, but I know I’m forever grateful to those who helped me escape Yemen and my marriage. If I hadn’t escaped, I have no doubt I would be dead right now!
Some may think that because I was a child bride 20-odd years ago, things have improved and this practice no longer exists, but all we need to do is look at Stephanie’s photos to know otherwise.
My heart breaks every time I see another picture of a child bride, read another story or see the statistics on child/forced marriage. However, I also have tremendous hope when I see people like Stephanie who go far and beyond to help those who cannot help themselves.
Not everyone can go out in the field and campaign or give their time to fight this cause, even if they really wanted to, but there are other ways you can help.
Stephanie is having a print sale of her invaluable photos. If you are able to buy one, the money will go to a good cause: helping child brides. I can tell you on their behalf that they will be forever grateful.
WAYS TO HELP
Purchase a print during this limited time: Visit tooyoungtowed.org/printsale to support our programming
Share information about Too Young to Wed and the print sale on social media and follow us there:
Hashtags: #endchildmarriage #tooyoungtowed
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Too Young To Wed is a nonprofit organization qualified for tax-exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Each contribution is tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.
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?
Yemen is likely to vote on a comprehensive ‘Child Rights Act’ over the coming months, which would ban both child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).
Roughly 27 child brides are forced into marriage in communities around the world every minute of every day.
But it takes only 30 seconds (seriously, we timed it) to sign Equality Now’s petition calling on the government of Yemen to enact a law establishing a minimum age of marriage. It’s a key first step to protecting the rights of girls in a country where fully one-third will be married as children.
Some of you may remember the moving story of Nujood Ali, who was 10 in 2008 when she bravely fled from her much older abusive husband to the courthouse in Sanaa—where she asked for, and was ultimately granted, a divorce. The following year, Yemen’s parliament considered establishing a minimum age of marriage of 17, but efforts faltered when conservative lawmakers characterized the effort as anti-Islam. Yemen’s human rights minister has called for that legislation to be reconsidered, and Equality Now’s petition is designed to support those efforts.
Nujood’s story grabbed international headlines, but literally thousands of girls just like her face the prospect each year of being married off in Yemen—14.2 million girls around the world. Equality Now and its partners Yemeni Women Union (YWU) and Arab Human Rights Foundation (AHRF) are working hard to not only stop those marriages, but to help married girls obtain divorces and protection.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Equality Now’s Middle East/North Africa consultant, was kind enough to explain the situation in Yemen to us in a Q-and-A below. We urge you to read her responses, sign the Equality Now petition by Jan. 1, 2014, and urge your loved ones to do the same.
In 2009, efforts to establish a legal minimum age of marriage in Yemen were defeated by conservatives in Parliament who insisted that such a law would go against Islam. What has changed since then? How can supporters of such legislation assure its passage this time around? What new arguments are being employed to convince lawmakers that setting a minimum marriage age is the right thing to do?
Yemen is currently undergoing a ‘national dialogue’ process, which seeks to debate the future of the state and draft a new constitution. We are hopeful that previous grievances can be put aside and a productive collaboration between parties to ensure that all girls at risk of child marriage are properly protected will develop. This is a fundamental and non-negotiable human rights issue, as opposed to a political concern.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement of 2011 states that parliamentarians should agree on suggested laws, so cross-party support is important. Arguments in favour of ensuring a minimum age of marriage have not changed, but the political situation has changed since the National Dialogue Conference.
Yemeni Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour has asked that the legislation considered in 2009 be reintroduced for consideration. What legal steps need to be taken to have that legislation reintroduced? Who within the government do supporters need to contact to make that happen?
According to the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement of 2011, the parliament should vote collectively on suggested drafts laws. This could be a challenge, but consensus is possible. Alternatively, a request could be made from the fantastic Human Rights Minister, Hooria Mashhour, or the speaker of the house, Yahia Al-Ra’i, to introduce and vote on the suggested draft law. If the parliament doesn’t agree, the president can intervene and issue a decree. We are hopeful that in such a scenario, the president would recommend that a minimum age of marriage is introduced.
Your petition has more than 1,800 signatures on it now. How many ideally would you like to send to Yemen? How many signatures would it take to get parliament to address this issue? Is there an official process by which it can be presented so it becomes part of the public, official record?
We are very grateful to everyone who has signed so far. There is no ideal number as such – every signature matters and helps to put pressure on the relevant authorities to re-introduce the minimum age of marriage bill. We are working both publically and behind the scenes to advocate for change.
When is the petition slated to be sent to Yemen? Is there a deadline by which supporters should sign it?
We are constantly working on this issue with our local partners in Yemen – we urge supporters to sign as soon as they possibly can as there may be a limited opportunity to get the proposed legislation introduced as part of the National Dialogue process, which is due to end in the near future. We do not know what the exact date might be, but the process is likely to end early 2014.
Other than setting a minimum age for marriage, what else would the law need to address for it to be effective in Yemen?
Without a minimum age of marriage, there is no legal protection for girls at risk of child marriage, so this is the most important element. However, we also urge the Yemen government to ensure that child brides who have ended their marriages are supported and safeguarded.
In the meantime, absent a marriage law, how have Equality Now and Yemen Women’s Union been able to assist young girls who have been married against their will or are in danger of being married? Besides signing the petition, what can regular members of the public do to assist EN and YWU in their efforts?
Without a minimum age of marriage, any efforts made to protect girls at risk are just piecemeal and unsystematic. There is a significant amount of support for safeguarding girls at risk, but ensuring legal protection and justice for these girls is the cornerstone of their empowerment. Without a law, girls continue to be put in harm’s way. As well as signing the petition, we encourage members of the public to spread the word about this campaign by sharing the Action and increasing awareness of this issue as much as they can through their own networks.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about this issue?
The Yemeni government is legally bound to introduce and approve this bill. The failure of the Yemeni government to ban child marriage is a violation of their international obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and also the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), both of which contain provisions against child marriage or practices prejudicial to the health of children. In 2012, the UN Human Rights Committee in its examination of Yemen’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), called on Yemen to “set a minimum age for marriage that complies with international standards.”
Along with our partners, Yemeni Women Union (YWU) and Arab Human Rights Foundation (AHRF), we enthusiastically support Minister Mashhour in her efforts to ensure that the government of Yemen lives up to its obligations under international law. We also urge the general public to help put pressure on the government of Yemen to make the rights of women and girls a priority, to pass and enforce a law prohibiting child marriage, and to ensure the safety and human rights of child brides who have ended their marriages.
— Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Middle East/North Africa Consultant, Equality Now
Nujood Ali was 10 when she hailed a cab to the courthouse in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a in April 2008.
Only two months earlier, her father had married her off to a man three times her age, and every day—and every night—since had been a nightmare.
She did not intend to become a cause célèbre that afternoon. She simply wanted a divorce and said as much to the first judge who acknowledged her presence.
But in Yemen—where child marriage is common but divorce considerably less so—Nujood’s case got people talking. Soon enough, her story made international headlines.
In countries where child marriage was uncommon or even nonexistent, Nujood’s tale raised awareness of the practice and the dangers associated with it. And in places like Yemen where plenty of girls shared her plight, it inspired other child brides to speak up for their rights.
Roughly 32 percent of Yemeni girls are married before they turn 18, according to the latest statistics gathered by the UNFPA. Most of them stay married, whether they want to or not.
What made Nujood’s case so different? It would be impossible to overstate the courage of an impoverished 10-year-old girl who would set off alone in her very first cab ride to a packed courthouse in Sana’a and demand a divorce. But her courage was only the starting point. She was helped along the way by a number of factors.
Playing a minor but crucial role was Nujood’s stepmother, who heard the girl’s complaints of being beaten and raped by her husband and urged her to take her case the courthouse. It was an incredibly bold suggestion, and risky at that. Unsympathetic court officials could have branded the child a runaway and returned her to her abuser. Instead, Nujood encountered a judge who was so stunned by her tenacity that he gave her safe harbor and had her father and husband arrested.
Next, she found a lawyer—Sana’a’s first female lawyer—willing to take her case for free. Shada Nasser had heard the hubbub at the courthouse surrounding the little girl’s efforts and thought she had a solid case. While child marriage is common in Yemen, the law insists that husbands wait for their wives to reach puberty before consummating the marriage.
Nujood’s husband hadn’t waited. So Nasser argued that the marriage violated Yemeni law because Nujood had been raped. Two weeks after she took that cab to the courthouse—and two months after she was married—Nujood was granted a divorce.
It was a landmark case that inspired at least three other child brides to reach out to Nasser, who took their cases.
“I am happy because I was able to help all the girls here in Yemen,” Nasser told Joshua Hersh for a New Yorker article in March 2010. “Since Nujood, I’ve been in touch with other girls asking about divorce. It’s like you open the window for all of the girls to go and complain, and that makes me very happy.”
Last—and perhaps most important for the millions of girls around the world in Nujood’s position—people were willing to listen to her story, share it and act on it. News organizations around the globe spread the tale of the little girl who battled tradition—and won. Nujood was hailed as one of Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year in 2008.
French journalist Delphine Minoui then worked with Nujood on an autobiography titled “I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced.” It was published in France in January 2009 and then in at least 20 different languages, including English.
Nujood was one of 16 children, and her father insisted that one of the reasons he married her off was because the family couldn’t afford to keep her. Proceeds from the book sales have helped Nujood’s family, eliminating any financial need to marry her or any of her sisters off any time soon. And the income has helped keep Nujood in school.
Her dream now? To become a lawyer.
“I want to defend oppressed people,” she told the L.A. Times. “I want to be like Shada. I want to be an example for all the other girls.”