Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Millions are hungry and at risk of starvation and the health infrastructure has practically collapsed. Across Yemen, 3.6 million people are internally displaced and often do not know where they will end up. Taiz Governorate on Yemen’s west coast has seen some of the most relentless fighting in the last four years, with thousands of families forced from their homes.
While international humanitarian organisations are working country-wide to address people’s basic needs, organisations like mine are working at the grassroots level to address extremely serious protection concerns. I set up the Hand in Hand foundation to work with internally displaced people (IDPs) in Aden. We help vulnerable women find shelter when they have fled their homes; we connect them with organisations that can support them; and we provide vocational training such as sewing. We help women understand local political structures and how they can be decision-makers alongside men.
In this article I discuss the widespread rise of gender-based violence (GBV) and child marriage since the start of the conflict, and the coping mechanisms Yemeni families are employing to survive – especially the displaced.
A child with a child
In my many years of working with vulnerable women I have come across two key issues: early marriage and physical violence. Both are extremely problematic during peacetime, but during a conflict they are dramatically worse, even if data is difficult to obtain.
Before the conflict the rate of early marriage in Yemen was already very high, with 9% of girls married before the age of 15 and 32% before they reach 18, according to UN figures.+See https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/child-marriage/yemen/ Due to a lack of understanding of their own bodies and the physical changes they go through, young girls are especially at risk during pregnancy and childbirth. Many women and girls die during childbirth through loss of blood or because they are malnourished. In 2018 up to 410,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women were admitted to health facilities with acute malnutrition, an increase of 87% since 2016.+See https://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/conflict-yemen-devastating-toll-pregnant-women-and-new-mums-becomes-clear-malnutrition While the statistics are shocking, the personal stories of the women I meet are even more impactful.
One woman I met left her home in Taiz and fled to Aden – she was a widow with three teenage daughters aged 14, 15 and 16. When the family arrived in Aden they were living in a very basic shelter without doors or windows, leaving the girls extremely exposed and at risk of sexual violence. A neighbour harassed them while their mother was out begging for money and food. In such a dangerous situation, the woman’s only defence was to get her girls married. Her eldest daughter’s husband, a 40-year-old man who worked for the military, was killed shortly after the girl became pregnant, leaving her widowed – essentially she is now just a child with a child. Her two young sisters are also married, to men 20 years older than them.
Aside from protection, a key reason for early marriage is money, particularly in a precarious conflict-affected context in which so many people are looking for any way to make ends meet. Another woman I know married off her 15-year-old daughter to a much older man to access the money to be able to flee from Taiz to Aden. She came to Aden in 2016 with her daughter, but the husband is still in Taiz and is pressuring her to return.
With early marriage comes protection and income for mothers and fathers – in many ways it is a logical decision. Child marriage is not reported because it is seen as a protection mechanism to guard against a greater threat. The issue is of course cultural, and a lot of families are not educated enough to know that it is not good for their girls. I have seen cases of families marrying their young daughters – and in some cases, young sons – even when they have no need for money or protection.
Sexual violence and harassment are other serious issues facing the women and girls I meet. There are cases of rape, but they are not reported officially. When I speak with women they say they have been attacked many times, but no one mentions rape. I suspect there are countless cases of very serious sexual violence, but they are not reported because women are afraid of the social stigma attached to rape, and because of ongoing risks to their safety. In IDP camps, those who have been abused are forced to live side by side with their attackers. If they report an attack it can take a long time to get a response, and they are fearful of retribution and anger. Married women are also frequently harassed and abused by their husbands; because they are married they do not believe this is wrong.
Sexual harassment including touching and cat-calling is seen as an inevitable part of life. Communities need to be educated and empowered to understand why sexual violence and harassment are always wrong, whatever the circumstances.
Yemeni attitudes and beliefs are often rooted in where people live. Like many countries around the world, in cities people are more progressive and more flexible, and much more closed-minded in remote rural villages. While it is not easy to open conversations about sexual harassment and early marriage, a good starting-point is to speak to imams and religious elders. Many are well-educated and open-minded and have the respect of their communities – people will listen to them. Community members, including fathers, mothers, teachers and girls themselves, must be brought together for education sessions. It takes time to change attitudes and perceptions, but it can be done as long as trainers and facilitators are from the same communities and are trusted figures. Here I highlight some of the key ways in which we can address these issues in Yemen.
Economic empowerment for women is vital in enabling them to express themselves and – crucially – protect themselves. Although it’s a difficult idea for extremely conservative communities to accept, there are some men – for example fathers – who will listen and accept this because they want the best for their daughters. For other men – often husbands – it is not acceptable, which is why it is so important to include boys and young men in these conversations.
There is also a lack of information and support regarding reporting and healthcare. Women do not know where to go or who to speak to, and are often surrounded by abuse including from their own family members, from uncles or cousins living in the same house. This is a particular problem in IDP camps and shelters. To encourage women to report abuse and seek help, they must feel safe and trust that they will not be put at further risk. I’ve come across many women who are initially very reluctant to speak to me and tell me what they have experienced. After several visits they trust me enough to open up and share their stories. Services that address the needs of these women must be confidential and anonymous, to encourage women to use them and to eliminate or at the very least minimise the risk to those seeking services. One recommendation is to establish clinics where large numbers of women can go at the same time – there is safety in numbers, and if they feel safe they will speak out and seek help.
Despite the difficulty in addressing these deep-rooted attitudes and beliefs, there are inspiring stories of survival and improvement. One woman, an IDP from Hodeidah, was married at 14 and experienced all types of violence, from rape to being locked up and forced to take medicines against her will. She was married for 16 years and has three daughters, all of whom suffer from heart disease. It took many visits to build her trust so that she would talk to me. I found her a lawyer who helped her to get a divorce, and now after years of unimaginable violence and sexual abuse she is free. She is a strong woman who now works with my organisation and shares her story with other women going through similar experiences.
I have countless such stories of the suffering of women and girls, but also the hope that our assistance is giving them. I will continue to fight for them, to support them to live stable lives free of violence. I myself am not married and I give all my time and energy to these women. I often feel depressed about the constant stories of abuse and the incredibly hard lives so many people in Yemen have to live. But every time there is even a small success it gives me renewed energy and motivation to keep going for the women of Yemen, who have suffered enough for several lifetimes.
Warda Saleh is a Yemeni women’s rights activist working on GBV issues in IDP camps in Yemen.