A FATHER has become the face of a push to cut down the horrific practice of forcing young girls into marriage – now admitting that making his 12-year-old wed against her will to pay his debts was a mistake.
The man features in a confronting new campaign highlighting the horrors of the custom in Yemen – horrors that include death, horrendous injury and brutal loss of innocence as girls are pushed into sex and childbirth before their young bodies are ready.
“I’d advise any father, mother or brother not to rush to marry their girls like I did because that is ignorant,” the dad, identified as Nadim, laments in an interview with Human Rights Watch.
Nadim details how he forced his daughter, named in the video as Laila, to marry against her will when she was just 12 – admitting he used threats of violence to make it happen.
“I forced her (Laila) and she cried, even at the wedding party. I warned her ‘If you don’t get married I will kill you.’ I really threatened her.”
Nadim now says marrying his daughters off when they were so wrong was a mistake, but he did it to pay back his debts with their dowries.
He says he also forced Laila’s sister to marry young as he needed the money that would come from the girls’ dowries.
“I married both my daughters off to pay back my debts.”
Laila, whose face is obscured in the Human Rights Watch video to protect her identity, insists she made it clear to her father that she had no interest in marrying the man he had chosen for her.
“When I got home from school one day, my father told me I was getting married,” said Laila. When I told him I didn’t want to get married, he threatened to beat me.”
Like many girls her age, Laila wasn’t thinking of marriage or having a family, her grandmother told the human rights advocacy group.
“She wanted to stay in school, but her father married her off,” said her nanna, identified as Ghada.
Child brides are common in Yemen, particularly in poor rural areas, according to Human Rights Watch researcher Belkis Wille.
“Child marriage is very common in Yemen and over 50 per cent of girls are married before the age of 18. In rural areas one even sees girls getting married at age eight,” said Ms Wille.
Yemen’s young brides made headlines around the world earlier this week when reports emerged of eight-year-old child bride Rawan who died of internal injuries sustained on her wedding night from intercourse with a groom more than five times her age.
Some doubts have emerged, with local authorities denying Rawan died to gulfnews.com, though freelance journalist Mohammad Radman said the girl’s neighbours confirmed the story to him and he is sticking by it.
But the scale of this issue is clear with United Nations data from 2006 showing that 14 per cent of girls in Yemen marry before they turn 15. For many cash-strapped families living in poverty, marrying their daughters off young can bring in much-needed funds.
“Given the poverty, families view their daughters as an economic asset, marrying the daughters off brings in a form of dowry from the groom’s family,” Ms Wille said.
“Unfortunately, the older the husband is and the younger the girl is, the larger the size of the dowry.”
Girls who are married so young are expected to perform “wifely duties” – though many are so innocent, they have little understanding of what this really means.
“They’re expected to fulfil their duties as wife, including bearing a child for their husband. At such a young age they have no understanding of intercourse,” Ms Wille said.
Many such girls, with little knowledge of married life and sex, suffer horrific injuries when their young bodies attempt to give birth.
Gynaecologist Dr Arwa Rabi’i told Human Rights Watch she has seen many very frightened young girls struggle through labour.
“When a woman marries early, before the age of 18, before her uterus and hips are fully developed, there will be serious gynaecological health problems like multiple miscarriages and life-threatening infections. We see it every day, not every month or week. Every day, many of them. Ten or twenty sick girls.”
She said one terrified 13-year-old was so scared of what was happening to her body she locked herself in the hospital toilet and gave birth in there … and the baby died.
Human Right Watch is campaigning to change Yemen’s constitution to include 18 as the minimum legal age for girls to marry.
While Yemen is the focus of the new push, child brides are an issue in many parts of the world, including India and Latin America.
The practice has also reared its ugly head in Australia.
In Victoria in 2010 a 14-year-old was banned from leaving the country and her family was forced to hand over her passport, in an effort to prevent an arranged marriage.
Two girls in Sydney – one aged 16 the other 17 – were placed on the Airport Watch List to prevent their parents from taking them out of the country to marry men they had never met.
In 2011 over 200 17 year-old were granted prospective spouse visas allowing them to join their husbands and live in Australia.