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'I only knew about weddings': Destitute Yemenis sell their daughters to pay their debts

Child marriage rates in Yemen were falling before the war, but the now desperate situation means a dowry can be tempting
Fawzia works with her grandmother tending livestock (MEE/Nasser al-Sakkaf)
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Taiz, Yemen

Zahr is 15 years old, the first of four siblings living in an old house in a village 50km south of Taiz city, in southwest Yemen.  

Her father is a labourer, but there is not much construction work to be found because of Yemen's war and the family has been forced to borrow money to pay for food and other basic items.

One day last year, Zahr's aunt, who lives in the same house, went to see a doctor about a nasal congestion condition.

The doctor advised that she should undergo surgery, which the family paid for at a cost of 100,000 Yemeni rials ($153).

And while Zahr's aunt found she could breathe more easily, the family felt increasingly constrained by their worsening finances.

A few days later, a man in his 40s proposed to marry Zahr for a dowry of $1,000. The family immediately rejected his offer.

"But then we thought about the proposal, and we realised it was a way to pay off our debts," Zahr's mother, Fatima, told Middle East Eye.

"So we contacted the man, and we married off our daughter to him to pay the debt of my sister's treatment."

'I only knew about weddings'

Zahr was 14 at the time and still a schoolgirl. But she withdrew from classes because, she said, her husband did not allow her to study.

The marriage would prove to be a “very difficult experience” because she was still a child, she said.

"I was not aware enough about marriage. I only knew about weddings and the juice and the cakes," she told MEE.

"I never dreamt I would be a bride, but one day, unfortunately, it happened to me."

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The arguments with her husband started immediately, Zahr said, as he not only stopped her from going to school but also tried to prevent her from contacting her family.

"I resorted to selling my wedding ring and buying a phone so I could speak to my family. But my husband found out, and he took away my mobile," she said. "In the way he treated me, he became a symbol of injustice and oppression."

Finally, after a few months, Zahr was able to flee and return to her family home. She refuses to go back to her husband.

"I was not a wife at all. I married an old man who made me a servant for his extended family from early in the morning to the night," she said.

"Child marriage is inappropriate. and I do not advise girls to marry until they are aware about marriage."

Deprived of a childhood

Speaking to MEE, Zahr's mother, Fatima, could not hold back her tears and said she was crying because she felt guilty about the way in which her daughter had been treated.

"We are sinful as we deprived Zahr of her childhood. My daughter suffered in her marriage, and I hope Allah will forgive me for this sin."

Figures suggest that rates of child marriage in Yemen, which had been in decline prior to the war, have been rising as a consequence of the desperate circumstances in which many families find themselves because of the conflict.

Child marriage was once a widely accepted custom in Yemen. But determined efforts by activists and children's rights organisations, and publicity surrounding the case of Nujud Mohammed Ali, who was granted a divorce in 2008 at the age of eight, had been effective in raising awareness about the negative consequences of the tradition.

However, the conflict has disrupted pre-war efforts by activists to push for the introduction of a legal minimum age of 17 for marriage. Sanaa had also seen protesters gather outside the parliament.

Nujud Mohammed Ali
Nujud Mohammed Ali, who was granted a divorce at the age of eight, takes part in a demonstration against child marriage in Sanaa in 2010 (AFP)

According to a UNICEF report published in 2017, more than two-thirds of girls in Yemen are married off before the age of 18 compared with about 50 percent before 2015.

Some parents believe that marrying off their daughters will spare them the cost of caring for them, or that they will be better protected by their husband’s family.

And like Zahr's family, some are tempted by dowry payments that can help them clear debts or buy food, medicine or other essential supplies.

UNICEF also noted in 2017 that cases of child brides were more common in areas hosting large numbers of displaced people.

MEE contacted the Save the Children country office in Yemen to comment, but they declined to speak because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Walter Mawere, the manager of advocacy, media and communications at Save the Children in Yemen, told MEE that child marriage was a "red-line" issue for the organisation on which it never commented.

'I cannot write my name'

Fawzia, 15, was brought up by her grandmother, Husn, after her father had divorced her mother before she was born. When both remarried, Fawzia said, there was no one else to care for her.

Husn, who is in her 60s, works as a shepherd tending sheep and goats in al-Shimayateen district, 70km from Taiz city, and earns enough to support herself, her blind husband, a divorced daughter and Fawzia.

Since the age of five, Fawzia has worked alongside her grandmother, minding the livestock. As a consequence though, Fawzia has never been to school and she remains illiterate.

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"I cannot write my name because I did not get a chance to study. I can only work as a shepherd," Fawzia told MEE. "This is what I have learnt from my grandmother."

As Fawzia got older, her grandmother found it harder to buy everything that she needed, and her father was not sending any money to help.

When a marriage proposal was offered last year by the family of a boy of Fawzia’s age, Husn accepted.

"Child marriage is a disaster and I do not advise girls of my age to marry. I have suffered in my marriage, but on the other hand, it was also better than a life dependent on my grandmother," said Fawzia.

Married nine months ago, Fawzia is now eight months pregnant and soon to be a mother to a baby who will never know its father.

"Six months ago, my husband got in a dispute with some other people and they hit him so violently that they killed him," she said.

'He's still in the fridge'

The family want the killers to be brought to justice and have vowed not to bury Fawzia's husband until the local court issues a judgement in the case.

"He's still in the fridge of the hospital. So I've no one to pay for my livelihood anymore, and I have resorted to working as a shepherd with my grandmother again," she added.

Fawzia has not returned to her grandmother's two-room home, however.

Instead, she now lives in her uncle's house where five of them share one room and a hall, which doubles as a kitchen.

Although she needs to visit a doctor to check on the health of her unborn baby, she does not have the money to do so and her uncle prevents her from asking other people for help, she said.

Husn, Fawzia's grandmother, told MEE she had married off all of her three daughters before they turned 18 because she could not afford to support them as adults, and had done the same for Fawzia.

"I treated Fawzia like my daughters and I married her off at 15 years old, but she was unlucky as her husband was killed," Husn said.

"I married Fawzia off for a dowry of 300,000 rials [$450]. Her husband only paid me 100,000 - and I'm still owed 200,000."

Editor’s note: Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of the people concerned.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.