Amidst a Devastating War, Child Marriage in Yemen Has Become a Means of Survival
There was no more money. There was only bread and tea for weeks. There was so much hunger, and so many children.
And so the couple agreed to let the man wed their youngest daughter, for a dowry payment they desperately needed in order to feed the rest of their children.
The bride was just 3 years old.
According to an Oxfam report, child marriage — already a problem in war-torn Yemen — has increased as the devastation of the war there worsens, and an estimated 14 million face famine. In a published statement, Oxfam’s Yemen Country Director, Muhsin Siddiquey, remarked: “As this war has gone on, people’s means of coping with devastating levels of hunger have become more and more desperate. They’re being forced to take steps that blight their children’s lives now and for decades to come.”
Oxfam is an international NGO devoted to fighting global poverty.
Parents in Yemen now frequently forego meals so that their children can eat. But even those meals — usually bread and tea or mashed tomato pulp — are sparse and few. Some families eat just one meal a day.
The images of starving and dying children have spread through social media, but no solution has been forthcoming as the conflict continues. For many parents, marrying off daughters in exchange fora dowry has become a question of survival.
Yemen has no minimum age for marriage, reports the United Nations Family Population Agency (UNFPA), with almost one third of women surveyed in 2013 having wed before the age of 18. According to The Denver Post, laws setting marriage at 15 were repealed in the 1990s “under pressure from Muslim conservatives who argue that Islamic Sharia law does not prohibit child marriage and that attempts to curb the practice are a Western plot.”
So even before the conflict, some Yemeni fathers forced their daughters into marriage as an alleged means of “protection,” saving their honor in the face of the possibility of rape — a fate that could cause shame to the entire family. With the war, which began with an attack by Houthi rebels in 2014, that percentage has increased, though actual figures are unavailable given the current circumstances there. One 2016 UNFPA survey, however, noted that “of the child marriage survivors in the North, 72 percent were married between the ages 13 and 15. Of those in the South, 62 were married before age 16.”
Even girls as young as 10 might be married off, sometimes to men decades older; Since husbands are legally forbidden to consummate the marriage before the child reaches puberty, younger girls become servants for their husbands, and occasionally their husbands’ parents.
One 9-year-old told Oxfam: “My mother-in-law keeps beating me, and when I run away back to my father’s house, my father beats me again for running away. ”
Horrific as these stories are, the parents are not entirely to blame. It is the culture they have always lived in, one that has indoctrinated them with the idea of women as nothing more than property — dehumanized objects to be bought and sold and used. In this context, the decision to sell a daughter into marriage may come as a desperate act to save the lives of other sons and daughters. But the fact that the option exists at all is a cultural depravity, not just their own.
And it isn’t just the girls who suffer, as the Investigative Project on Terrorism has reported. The concept of dowry has also been weaponized as a recruitment tool for jihadist groups in countries other than Yemen, such as South Sudan and Afghanistan.
As Valerie Hudson — George H.W. Bush Chair in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University — and others have noted, the disempowerment and dehumanization of women are “the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness.” And until such dehumanization, the continuing abuse, and the oppression of women in these societies stops, the cycle will not end.
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands Her next book, on domestic abuse and terrorism, will be published by Potomac Books. Follow her at @radicalstates.
A version of this article was originally published by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.