Gaby: Surviving child marriage in Yemen
Gaby grew up in Wales, but spent 17 years in Yemen after being sold into child marriage by her father at the age of 13. After escaping to the UK, she eventually moved to Bristol
Gaby grew up in Wales, but spent 17 years in Yemen after being sold into child marriage by her father at the age of 13. After escaping to the UK, she eventually moved to Bristol and became one of the city’s first female head-bouncers.
In my family there’s been so many types of violence. There’s been sexual violence, there’s been domestic violence. There’s been murder, there’s been child marriage, there’s been honour-based violence. In our community, shame and honour rule families.
We never knew our rights. As girls, we were brought up as second class citizens. You’re brought up to do as you’re told. You don’t disobey the men in your household. If we ever said no to a male member in our family, we were beaten to a pulp. So we never said no.
When I look back now, I think I always maybe knew. Did I? Sometimes I doubt myself. Did I know that my father was a madman? Because he used to beat me, even when I was little. I still loved him, and I think sometimes when you yearn for love, when you want somebody to love you so badly, you don’t see the bad in them. You just want somebody to rescue you. And I always wanted my father to be the one to rescue me.
When my father sent me and my sisters to Yemen to be sold off into child marriage, I was 13. I saw girls being married. Little girls. Even though you see what happened to other girls, the reality of what it’s really like is so different.
The build up to the marriage was so mentally draining. And the worst thing about the wedding night was my fear of not bleeding. I knew nothing about puberty, nothing about sex.
You have to sit on a ‘throne’, and then you have to open your legs. He’s only supposed to enter you and then pull out to prove that you bleed. Some men don’t. Some men rape their child bride so viciously that they’re torn to pieces.
It happens a lot, where girls die on their wedding nights because they’re raped so viciously. My cousin was raped so badly. The family just covered it up.
Again, it comes to not knowing your rights. Not knowing that you have a voice, you’re allowed to speak out. It also comes down to where you live. In Yemen, even if you did know your rights, who do you go to? Child brides who go and tell authorities they’ve been raped or sexually abused, they’re not believed or they’re blamed. In some countries, a girl is the one punishable for being raped.
The smell of my husband’s aftershave would make me fearful. I got migraines, which could have been caused by the constant blows I suffered from him. I’d always stayed with him, but it was getting too dangerous. The elders of the village stepped in and said to my father, you need to take care of your daughter now. So my father was basically shamed into taking me back. It takes the elders to shame a family into looking after their daughter. It happens a lot in Yemen. It happens in the communities in this country as well.
My father didn’t want me. He used to threaten, “well if you want to leave your husband, that’s fine. We’ll take your kids, give them back to your husband, and we’ll remarry you, sell you off again.”
Escaping life as a Yemeni child bride
It took me 17 years to escape Yemen. I managed to escape my father’s house in the middle of the night and go to the capital city Sana’a, to the British Embassy. I told them about what had happened to me when we were younger, how we had been taken from England and sold off into child marriage. They managed to put my five children on my passport and smuggle me out of the country.
By the time I left, I was in a full-on niqab. As soon as I was on the airplane and the airplane was in the sky, I literally ripped it all off. I stuffed it under my seat and didn’t even take it off the airplane. I remember thinking, “I feel naked. I feel like I’m doing something wrong, but not so wrong that I want to cover up again.”
In Yemen, we were made to feel like we didn’t belong. We were ‘the English girls’, even after we had children and lived there. When I came back to the UK, I was ‘the Yemeni girl’. It didn’t make it easier that I was a single parent of five mixed race children. I was looked down upon.
Today I am the campaigner that I am because of what happened to me, because of neglect, abuse, child marriage. I’ve been stigmatised throughout my life because of the failings of the authorities here in the UK that should have protected me when I was young. I’m still being stigmatised today because of their failings, which they choose not to acknowledge.
Now, having my freedom means being allowed to do whatever I want to do. Don’t tell me I can’t do something because I’m a woman, or I’m a different race than you. If you can do something, then so can I. Just because you’re a female, that doesn’t mean you’re any less able or entitled than the next person. If everybody was educated and understood their worth as a human being… oh god, the world would be a much better place.
Find out more: Child Marriage in Yemen
Child marriage is very common in Yemen. According to Human Rights Watch, 14% of girls are married by the time they are 15, and more than 50% before the age of 18.
Gaby currently sits on the Board of Advisors for Too Young to Wed. In 2014, she published A Father’s Betrayal, a book about her life as a Yemeni child bride. To read Gaby’s story about her life in Bristol and her fight for proper mental healthcare for her son, click here.