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Married at 12; a single mother at 16 in Yemen

MABYAN DISTRICT, Hajjah Governorate, Yemen – At 16, Ghada* was illiterate, with no work experience, no job prospects – and the mother of three children. 

One of seven children herself, she had been married off at 12 years old by her father, a farm day labourer. "My family is poor,” she said. “He accepted the first proposal for the marriage that came to him, not only for me but for my sisters, not caring that we were only children.” 

Like in many poor Yemeni families, her father saw her marriage as one less mouth to feed. Despite Ghada’s protests, she was forced to get married. She became pregnant at 13, but when she had a girl, her husband – who wanted a boy – abused Ghada physically and emotionally, forbidding her to leave the house for a year. 

When she got pregnant a second time, there was no health facility nearby to determine the gender of the baby so for nine months, Ghada lived in fear of having another girl. When the baby was a boy, she was finally allowed to leave the house to visit her family. 

She hoped that after telling her father about the imprisonment, the beatings and the cruel insults and daily humiliations, he would provide sanctuary. She was wrong. With no options before her, she returned to her husband, who promised things would change. They didn’t, and at 15, Ghada found herself pregnant a third time.

Feeling hopeless, she tried to poison herself with pesticide stolen from her husband. Her sister-in-law saved her, reminding her to live for her children and seeking medical attention. Still, Ghada’s father refused to let her stay when she ran away again – the family could not afford to feed more people. “It took time for my father to understand how broken I was,” she said. 

Child marriage rates remain high

Almost two thirds of girls in Yemen are married before 18, and many before 15, according to a 2013 demographic and health survey, the most recent available. Yemen is one of the few countries in the Arab region with no legal minimum age of marriage; after a proposed law setting the legal minimum at 18 was never passed because of the onset of conflict six years ago, which has reduced the country to a grinding humanitarian crisis. 

The crisis has only exacerbated the problem. A UNFPA study across three governorates showed that rates of child marriage were highest among displaced populations, with 1 in 5 displaced girls aged 10 to 19 years being married, compared to 1 in 8 girls in the host community. One in 10 girls younger than 18 lose their baby during childbirth.  

A collapse in social, health and legal services combined with an economy in tatters and inadequate aid funding has limited access to  services responding to gender-based violence, as well as sexual and reproductive health services. Funding is fast being depleted and without more, over 500,000 women and girls will be denied psychosocial, medical, legal and other support services in 2021. “It is urgent that essential services for women and girls are not only sustained but also scaled-up,” stated Nestor Owomuhangi, UNFPA’s representative in Yemen. 

A chance for new beginnings

Depressed and fearful, Ghada had reached her lowest until a neighbour took her in and Ghada’s mother accompanied her to a UNFPA-supported safe space in Hajjah Governorate. There, she was referred for psychiatric care in the city of Hajjah, the only place in the entire governorate  (population: about 3 million) where such care is available to women.  

A lawyer at the safe space helped her secure custody of her two daughters and son, who had been taken away by her husband. She took sewing livelihood training offered at the safe space, where she also learned to read and write, and which gave her cash assistance. And after finishing her training as one of the most committed participants, she was awarded a sewing machine and materials to help provide for herself and her family. 

“Education helped me to become economically independent so I can have my freedom of choices,” Ghada said. “I need to get my children an education so they can choose for themselves in their lives.”

She left her husband and is back in her father’s house, no longer a pre-teenager considered an economic burden but a 16-year-old provider, a child herself in years only. 

UNFPA supports 51 safe spaces, nine shelters and eight mental health centres across Yemen, with the support of the Central Emergency Relief Fund, the European Union, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Switzerland, USAID's Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance and the Yemen Humanitarian Fund.

*Name changed for privacy and protection.