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Aisha, Wafa and Hafsa never imagined that their tragedies would signal a wake-up call for the residents of their small village in western Yemen. The two sisters Wafa and Aisha and their cousin Hafsa got married in 2010, when they were all under 16 – as is the custom in their village.
Wafa, who was married off at age 15 to a 28-year-old man, demanded a divorce after one year when her husband refused to let her continue her schooling. Her sister, Aisha, who married a 25-year-old man when she was only 14, became pregnant but lost the baby during her first year of marriage. She is pregnant again but fears that she may lose the baby as doctors have told her that she has a high risk of catching an infection due to her young age.
Hafsa was the youngest of the three to get married, and found herself becoming a bride at age 13. She was returned to her family because her husband couldn't cope with her ongoing panic attacks.
“I was really scared”
Wafa is now on the verge of turning 18. She sits with her sister Aisha, whose features reflect extreme tiredness, and her 40-year-old mother, who is pregnant with her tenth child, and recalls what it was like to be married at such a young age:
"I was really scared when my father came and told me that I was going to be married," said Wafa. "I had no idea what it meant; to me it was leaving my house and going to another house.
"Though I had younger friends that had married before me, I never dared to ask what it meant. It's forbidden and shameful if unmarried girls ask or talk about marriage.
Wafa seems the elected spokesperson for the girls – Aisha remained silent and avoided questions, looking down with a smile and pointing to her sister Wafa to indicate she should speak; Hafsa, their younger cousin, stayed in her room which, according to Wafa, is typical of her self-imposed isolation: "My cousin Hafsa has suffered from psychological problems since she was married..." Wafa said.
A recent Oxfam study indicates that more than half of Yemeni women get married before they are 18, and that the average age is just 14. Getting married at a young age is one of the main causes of high maternal mortality in Yemen – about eight women die every day during childbirth, and for every 100,000 live births, 366 women die. Around 19% of maternal deaths occur in women aged 15-19. Yemen has one of the highest birth rates in the world – the average Yemeni woman has seven children.
A village wakes up
Prior to the unification of Yemen in 1990, there were laws which set the minimum age of marriage at 16 in south Yemen, and 15 in the north. After unification, the law was set at 15. However, in 1999, the personal status law, under which the issue of early marriage currently sits, went through a series of changes resulting in the minimum age being abolished. In 2009, an amendment to the law was reviewed in parliament, whereby parents who married their daughters before the age of 17 would pay a hefty fine and up to a year's imprisonment. Unfortunately, the law was never passed. Without a law, it is primarily fathers who decide when it is time for their daughters to be married.
For Aisha, Hafsa and Wafa, and many other girls from Al Madman village, which is located in one of the poorest governorates in Yemen, a woman has no right to stand against their parents if they decide to marry of their daughters. However, their tragic story provoked a reaction from their community and led the village to launch a unique initiative to change the recognized age of marriage to 18 years old.
"The whole village had been following the same traditions and practices for decades," said Yahia, 40, the village imam who conducts the marriage contracts.
"There is a proverb that says 'who will come to marry your daughter first will be your friend.' That is to say, never reject the proposal otherwise the girl will be a spinster and nobody will propose again," he added.
Yemeni women raise awareness
Together with the Yemeni Women Union, Oxfam started a campaign to raise awareness about the negative social and developmental impacts of early marriage on families.
Before Oxfam's support, Abdullah, Wafa and Aisha's father, was unaware of the risks of marrying off his daughters at a young age: "We had no idea that marriage at that age caused any risks, such as medical, psychological or social impacts, said Abdullah. "In the beginning, we were concerned that girls wouldn't finish their schooling if they married at 13 or 14, so we included education as part of the marriage contract.
"When the awareness campaigns on the negative consequences of early marriage took place across the village and in schools and mosques addressing men as well as women, things became more clear to us," added Abdullah. "I'm paying the cost of my ignorance ... I'm calling on the government to bring about a law defining the age of marriage at 18. I want the government to issue a law which requires fathers to show official medical papers that indicate that the couple are capable – physically, psychologically – of marrying."
Though Hafsa and Aisha couldn't finish school because of medical problems, Wafa managed to graduate, and she hopes she can go to university next year.
Wafa said, "I hope this change of custom in our village will mean that nobody will have get married at a young age again."
Over 5 million people (22% of population) are unable to produce or buy the food they need. Since June 2012, Oxfam has reached more than 119,000 people with various program activities, including cash, seed and tool distributions and WASH activities. We’re currently working in Saaeda, Hajjah, Al Hodeidah and Aden. We are hoping to extend our WASH activities into Abyan, thanks to a grant from UNICEF.