'Who do you turn to for help?' The horror of being a child bride

Gabriella Gillespie
The author with her father, husband and three eldest children

When Bangladesh came under fire last week for proposing a clause to its child marriage bill which would allow girls under the age of 18 to marry in 'exceptional circumstances,' many were shocked that such a troubling legal loophole could pass muster in 2017. But sadly, this came as no surprise to me: I was made a child bride at the age of 13, and know only too well about the devastation it causes.

I knew nothing about marriage when I was sold by my father to a man in a village in Yemen. I had been taken there on my birthday alongside my two sisters so that we could be wed - we had no idea what was about to happen to us. As far as we knew, we were going for a short 'holiday', but the reality was that we had been taken out of education to become wives, to cook, clean, work in the fields and bear children.

'When this happens you don’t know you have rights as a human being'

I was the last of my sisters to be sold, and perhaps I was the luckiest of us all: weeks after arriving, my 14-year-old sister was to be given to a man we once called ‘uncle’. Not long after that, my other sister, then 17, took her own life on her wedding night after being sold to a 60-year-old man.  

Having seen the horrific fate my sisters had suffered, I was determined to choose my own husband to try and gain some semblance of control over my future. I found an 18-year-old local boy, but he died suddenly just six weeks into our marriage. Some months later, I was sold again to one of the wealthiest families in Yemen.

As a little girl growing up in Britain, I could never have believed that I’d be married twice by the time I turned 14, and I became pregnant immediately after I wed the second time. I lived in a village with no running water, no electricity, no police station, school or hospital, so we were isolated from the rest of the world.

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When this happens you don’t know you have rights as a human being, and even if you did, who do you turn to for help?

Child marriage in our rural village of Mugrahba was rife: almost every girl was married off at the same age I was – often, they were even younger, their tiny bodies struggling to cope with the lives growing inside them. We tried to help each other through bad times the best we could but most girls didn't understand they were being abused - this was normal life to them. The pain I was subjected to was unimaginable; physical, emotional, sexual, and mental. I called it torture because every day you knew you'd be waking up to the same nightmare, there was no escape. 

It took 17 years before someone smuggled me back to the UK with my five children, and being able to seek refuge in another country is a luxury many in that same situation do not have. I had been told to contact the British embassy for help: they put me in hiding for a year while they formulated a plan to get us out – neither my husband or father knew of my whereabouts or intentions during that time, and I’d taken my children with me to ensure they never suffered the abuse I had.

Twelve months later, we were home.

I had hoped things would be easy once we returned, but they weren’t: life has been a constant struggle. My father vowed to hunt me down and kill me for 'dishonouring' him after I left, but I would make the same decision again - at least now, we have our freedom.

Across the globe children are being pushed into marriage in the name of poverty, culture, tradition and religion, with governments seemingly powerless in preventing this barbarism. Child marriage is the norm in countries like Nepal, where the legal age to wed is 20, but this practice is still rife, so most do not see it as harmful. We have girls and their babies dying on a daily basis, but people truly do not understand or believe that this is a direct result of child marriage. That has to change.

The author today

Both boys and girls are affected by it, but unfortunately it’s our young girls who are suffering the most: one of the greatest difficulties remains enabling them to report abuse and get the help they so urgently need. What I went through was unimaginable, and being unable to turn anywhere for assistance made what I was dealing with so much worse.

I often think about what can be done to eradicate forced marriages, and all I know is this: children should be allowed to be children, to have an education so they can be taught their rights, build up their confidence, and look forward to a brighter future other than marriage if they choose.  Girls need to be valued just as boys are, because this persistent inequality is only adding to their suffering.

We need more organisations like Girls Not Brides, whose members work tirelessly to eradicate child marriage, as well as Too Young To Wed, an NGO I’m proud to be a part of, working in Nepal to help those affected by child marriage.

Governments and societies need to stop holding onto out of date traditions and realise the harm these forced unions are having on their countries and, most importantly, their children.

Gabriella Gillespie is the author of A Father's Betrayal