When girls marry to pay parental debt [Archives:2007/1097/Reportage]

October 25 2007
Photo from archived article: photos/1097/report1_1
Photo from archived article: photos/1097/report1_1
By: Fatima Al-Ajel
and Iqbal Al-Hajjaj

In Yemeni society, some girls are forced to marry older men so that their parents can pay off their debts. The marriage section of the personal affairs law states that the marriage contract is considered illegal if a girl is forced to marry or if she doesn't know about the contract; therefore, she has the right to refuse the marriage, but unfortunately, many women don't realize such right.

Faiza Ahmed was 15 and uneducated when she had to marry a man the same age as her father, who had tax problems and debt. With no other income source except for his daughter, the neighborhood sheikh said he would help the father if he married her. “As the only solution to my father's problems, I agreed to marry – even if it meant losing my childhood and my life – in order to save him from jail,” Ahmed explained.

Married for three years, Ahmed now has three children, but she still feels uncomfortable due to the significant age gap between herself and her husband. Lack of love increases the problems in her family.

Forcing young girls to marry much older men remains a problem, experts say. However, among the many miserable stories of girls forced to marry at a young age are some that began sadly but fortunately, ended happily. What follows are stories from both sides.

Haifa Omar was 10 when her father forced her to marry her cousin who was nearly 15 years older. Her wedding day was miserable. Although she didn't know what marriage meant, she knew she would leave her mother and travel to Sana'a to live forever, far away from her mother. “The entire way from Taiz to Sana'a I was crying that I wanted to go back to my mother. All of my relatives and neighbors were crying too,” Omar recalled.

When she arrived at her husband's, her room was full of toys and gifts and this calmed her down. “Frankly, my husband was too kind to me, treating me as his daughter rather than as a wife. This helped me to accept my new life.”

After completing her studies with great support from her husband, Omar, also the mother of five, now is a public school teacher. “I appreciate my husband's patience throughout these years, especially when he faced criticism from his family. Many times, he encountered problems regarding why he let me continue studying. His parents wanted me to serve them as a servant, which was the purpose of the marriage,” she expressed.

One of the main reasons parents force their daughters to marry at an early age is money, especially those families suffering poverty. When a rich man proposes to their daughter, they deal with him as a favorable transaction and attempt to convince themselves that in all matters, they and their daughters are the winners.

Alia Ali was in seventh grade when her father forced her to marry a Saudi man who paid her parents a lot of money. “I hated my husband during the first years of the marriage, but once I knew his character, I really loved him, especially because he always gives me whatever I want,” she commented.

According to an Oxfam-funded study on early marriage conducted in Hadramout and Hodeidah governorates by the Women and Development Study Center, in cooperation with the Yemeni Network to Combat Violence Against Women, the main factor for early marriage is the spread of cultural orientations favoring early marriage, wherein many think Islam urges the practice.

A study of 1,495 couples revealed that early marriage for women is 52.1 percent, whereas men marrying at an early age comprised only 6.7 percent. The marriage age has increased over the past three generations from between ages 10 and 24 to between ages 14 and 70.

The study also discovered variations in marriage age according to geographical district.

For example, in Hodeidah, Hadramout and Sayoun, girls marry at age 8, whereas they marry at age 10 in Mukalla. Moreover, marriage age varies between urban and rural areas. It was found that the appropriate age for marriage is between 15 and 16.

Women ignore their rights

Attorney and activist Ishraq Al-Maqatri, manager of the advocacy and legal protection for women's rights project initiated by Oxfam-GB, notes that there's no clear law forbidding forced marriage, but according to the marriage section of the personal affairs law, the marriage contract is considered illegal if a girl is forced to marry or if she doesn't know about the contract.

Al-Maqatri clarifies that the girl has the right to refuse or accept the marriage. Islamic instruction and Yemeni law provide women this right but unfortunately, Yemeni women are afraid to sue either their fathers or their husbands.

“Most women's problems and cases we handle, such as conditional divorce and alimony, basically stem from forced marriage,” Al-Maqatri noted.

“For a long time, there was only one instance where a girl prosecuted her father who had arranged her marriage contract without telling her. Maryam won her case and married another, but she and her new husband now have fled their village to an unknown location due to the problems they faced after she brought her case against her father,” Al-Maqatri recounted.

The advocacy and legal protection for women's rights project initiated by Oxfam-GB reports that their five governorate branch centers register approximately 30 women coming to sue their husbands due to violence or forced marriage. “These are the cases of women who can present their cases to judicial authorities,” Al-Maqatri adds.

Early marriage to escape spinsterhood

Some negative traditional customs control lifestyle in many areas of Yemen, especially in rural communities where most girls must marry at an early age to escape spinsterhood and often end up marrying the first guy who proposes marriage.

“In our village, girls who don't marry by age 15 are considered spinsters. My father accepted the first one who came to propose for my hand, even before I knew him,” recalls Aziza Al-Maqatri, adding that, “My father is like many fathers who believe that 'a girl either must go to her husband's house or be buried in the grave,' so I agreed to marry.

“Unfortunately, living with him was like living in hell because he didn't respect me -ever.” Her husband was 55 when they married, but due to bad treatment, she got divorced after two months of the marriage.

The Sana'a University-affiliated Woman and Development Study Center conducted another study in March 2006 of the 1,495 couples, arguing that there's a huge age gap between such spouses.

According to the study, 48.7 percent of Yemen's population is under age 15, which means more than 50 percent of girls are likely to marry before age 18. Of the study sample, 381 said poverty is the primary reason for child marriage while social traditions and values constituted another reason for the phenomenon, as parents prefer their daughters marry to avoid any immoral deviation.

Other reasons are that parents fear their daughters will reach the age of spinsterhood or they are lured into marrying their daughters at a young age by rich men proposing to marry them.

Approximately 32.91 percent of the study's male sampling held the view that another reason for early marriage is the financial situation of families who consider source of income and sufficient finances as a condition for marrying their daughters, even at an early age.

Some poor families merchandize their daughters for marriage as soon as they reach their teens, a fact confirmed by 388 of those surveyed, who pointed out that families offer their girls for marriage at an early age due to poverty.

Psychological problems

Psychologists believe this is a dangerous situation for girls to live in because forcing little girls to marry against their will causes numerous problems affecting them both physically and emotionally. Problems can affect their families too.

Psychologist Ibtisam Al-Shawqi explains that some girls deliberately take an overdose of pills, preferring death rather than marrying at an early age, especially if the groom is very old, whereas others take pills to prevent possible early pregnancy.

Because some young girls like all of the various bridal gifts, they accept marrying at an early age, regardless of the responsibilities they'll have after marriage, and do so without advising their families.

Ameera Saif married at an early age but now she misses her childhood, as she became a mother early. “I'm raising myself while I'm raising my children. There are sometimes problems regarding the kids that I can't figure out or solve because I'm uneducated.” Saif admits that her daughter died in an accident caused by her neglect.

Obstetrician Ahlam Al-Amam explains that young wives face numerous problems if they become pregnant at an early age. “Most of their first children die or are born with problems, whereas the young mothers themselves may die due to bleeding or bearing children at home,” she points out.