Girls in Yemen deserve a childhood

National Yemen

By Amal Alariqi

Tuesday’s high profile summit on early marriage and female genital mutilation, hosted by David Cameron, is a chance to give girls back their childhood. In Yemen, around a third of girls are married before 18. Aliah, a former child bride, is just one of many. Amal Alariqi, Oxfam’s media officer, shares Aliah’s empowering story and why child marriage must be stopped. 

“I’ll never forget the screams of my daughter while she was delivering her baby. She was only 16 years old,” recalled Aliah Abdo Mohammed, a 32 year old mother from Western Yemen.

“She was crying and asking me why I forced her to marry. She’d rather die.”

“I remember my legs were shaking. I couldn’t stand up until she’d left the surgery with her baby girl,” said Aliah, describing the moment that triggered a flashback to painful memories.

I was forced to marry a 30 year old man when I was only 16. After the wedding night, I tried to escape from my husband but my father kept beating me and forcing me to go back. He told me it would tarnish the family reputation. My daughter also tried to leave her husband but couldn’t escape,” said Aliah.

Both Aliah and her daughter dropped out of school after getting married. By the age of 22, Aliah was raising six children, and lost her baby boy during a miscarriage. “I had no experience of raising children and was alone with my husband. My mother in law taught me how to take care of my children. I was so young that my children seemed like dolls. I loved to wash and comb their hair but couldn’t cope when they got sick.”

“My son got ill and died,” said Aliah wiping away tears, “Instead of going to the hospital we gave him traditional therapy which could not prevent his death.”

Aliah’s story is not unusual. According to a joint UNICEF and government survey in 2006, 14 percent of girls in Yemen are married before reaching the age of 15 and over half are married before 18. A 2005 study by Sana’a University noted that in some rural areas girls as young as eight are married.

Aliah and her daughter live in Al Hodeidah, an area well known for its high rates of early marriage and female circumcision. According to a national health survey over 60 per cent of women in this area have been affected by the practice.

“After giving birth, many older women in my village were pushing me to ‘cleanse’ my daughter otherwise her prayers would not be granted,” said Aliah, who was also a victim of circumcision when she was a child.

A study by Oxfam revealed that many families face pressure to marry off their daughters at a young age to preserve their moral virtue.

“There is a belief that un-circumcised girls would be immoral and not wanted for marriage,” Aliah explained.

Oxfam and partners have been campaigning on early marriage for many years seeking to raise awareness amongst religious leaders and local communities about the consequences of this practice on young girls.

“It’s difficult to put a stop to this practice without a law to criminalise and punish those parents who expose their daughters to such experiences,” said Esharq, Oxfam’s legal protection officer.

With support from Oxfam, Aliah now helps to raise awareness about child marriage in her community: “My daughter and I were both victims but I refuse to be silent anymore. This practice must end.”