In her guest blog, Gabriella Gillespie describes her remarkable escape from a marriage her father forced her into as a child bride in Yemen. As a survivor, author and advocate, she works to raise awareness about honor violence and help girls and women around the world. In 2014 she published her memoirs, A Father’s Betrayal.
Most people wouldn’t think twice about the true meaning of freedom because they were born with it, and have no reason to ever believe it would be taken away from them. But for just one moment imagine being born into a family where you have no right to your own freedom, just because you were born female.
I’ve accomplished many things in my life which I never thought possible because of my past. I’ve raised five wonderful children as a single parent, I’ve been a foster parent and a youth worker, I even became one of the first ever head female bouncers in the city where I now live. Today I’m an author, campaigner, public speaker and activist.
However I believe my biggest achievement has been escaping my life as a child bride in Yemen, and being able to give my two daughters and three sons their freedom.
We have girls and women all around the world who are having their whole lives ripped away from them by those they love and trust the most, by their own families. This is being done in the name of “honour” tradition, culture and religion. This isn’t just happening across the borders, but also in my home country of the UK. I know more than anyone just how familiar this practice is because it happened to me and my sisters.
I was the youngest of four sisters born in the UK to a British mother and an Arab father. I was a very naïve and oblivious child, a little stubborn who always had something to say and do. We were not brought up around religion or culture, and from what I remember we were just a happy, normal family.
I was around six when our mum disappeared. We came home from school one day and she was gone. My sisters and I were bewildered as to why she’d left and devastated because we’d never spent a day apart from her before, but our dad told us she’d just left us and was never coming back. We believed him because we loved him, and had no reason to think he was lying to us.
A year later our father was arrested for her murder. We were all put into foster care and more or less sheltered from the huge police investigation and press interest that followed. It was reported as a very brutal murder which gained nationwide coverage and one of the biggest manhunts South Wales had ever seen, but our mother’s body was never found. Our father was arrested with two of his friends, but they were later released without charge.
Our father was given a six-year prison sentence for manslaughter, but on his release he was able to regain custody of us girls. He then took us out of the UK under the guise of a “holiday” to his home country of Yemen. Once there we were all sold as child brides.
I had one of my sisters pulled from my arms kicking and screaming to be given to a man as his “wife”; she was just 14 years old. My other sister took her own life on her wedding night, she had barely turned 17.
After seeing the fate of my two sisters, and knowing what awaited me, I took matters into my own hands and befriended a local boy, who I encouraged to approach my father to ask for my hand in marriage. By finding a boy I liked, I tried to come to terms with an unimaginable situation. At the age of thirteen, I was married. A mere six weeks later, the boy I had married died, and I was married off to another man. By the age of 14, I had been sold into marriage twice.
Days, weeks, months, years passed, one day seemed to blend into another, especially since we’d been taken to one of the most remote villages in Yemen which had no roads, no electricity, no running water, no school, hospital or anyone who could speak our language, we were so isolated. We were forced into becoming “good Muslim girls”.
My father committed many crimes towards the females in our family; he inflicted pain, fear and control, then when these tactics failed he resorted to murder. Unfortunately he hadn’t acted alone, he was aided in his crimes by his family and the community. In our family there has been murder, child abuse, “honour” violence, rape, child marriage and forced marriage to name just a few.
After many, many years of unimaginable abuse I managed to escape Yemen after a tip off about a place called the British Embassy which was in the capital Sana’a. Because we had been taken as children we never knew there were people who could help our situation. I managed to flee the village and make the dangerous trek to the capital, along with my five children. In late 1992 the Embassy smuggled us out of the country and back home. I was 29 years old when I escaped.
I’m happy forced marriage has become a criminal offence in the UK, it should have happened many years ago. Child/forced marriage is a human rights violation and should be acknowledged as such worldwide, but I’m not so naïve as to believe criminalization is going to solve the problem alone. For example, if it had been illegal back in the 70s when my father took us I don’t think it would have deterred him from doing what he did. There will always be men like my father and his friends who have no regards for the law or the girls they harm. However, at least now the authorities have the power and means to protect someone who could be at risk. There are still girls who are being taken today and imprisoned under exactly the same circumstances as we were, and many more are being brutally murdered in these so called “honour” killings just like my mother was. Much more needs to be done to help our girls and women.
I have concerns that it’s still legal in the UK and many other countries for children to marry at 16 with parental consent, especially when we know that most parents are the perpetrators of forced marriage. We need to do more to educate our children from a very early age that they have a right to say no if they are being forced into marriage, and where to go for help if they find themselves in trouble.
There have been huge changes in the way our girls and women are protected today but we have a long way to go. In the UK we are struggling with budget cuts affecting our women’s services and this is taking its toll on housing and shelters for those fleeing these types of violence.
What I do know is that as women we don’t need men to protect our “honour”. We are perfectly able to protect ourselves and we are also just as able to make our own choices when it comes to how we want to live our lives.
Men need to stop controlling women and they need to realise that we are equal partners in this world, no one gender is more worthy than the other. We have to achieve equality so that we can live alongside men without the fear of violence or intimidation, but I have to admit I don’t have all the answers to how we go about doing this, I doubt anyone does.
I have a huge amount of respect for all those working to eradicate child/forced marriage, honour based violence and all types of violence against women. One particular charity here in the UK called Savera is very close to my heart. The founder Afrah Qassim is a good friend of mine and a real treasure to our cause. Their patron Nazir Afzal OBE* is a true gentleman and a formidable campaigner for women’s rights, he also isn’t shy in saying it how it is. We need more men to stand up and be as vocal as Nazir because no matter what your cultural beliefs are, no matter what traditions you may follow, or what God you pray to, men need to stand with us on these issues.
I might not have all the answers but I know one thing, we do need men to help us eliminate violence against women.
I started campaigning many years ago after I came across an article by a lady called Stephanie Sinclair who is the founder of Too Young to Wed, an NGO working to eradicate child marriage. Steph has worked for over a decade and has worked on the ground in Yemen, Afghanistan and many other countries where child marriage is rife. Her work really struck home with me because I saw myself in the girls she worked with and decided I needed to meet her. Today I’m on the Board of Advisors for Too Young to Wed.
My family struggled for many years since returning home to the UK. I came back in 1992 as a single parent. My children and I didn’t receive any help around the issues of child/forced marriage or the fact that we were fleeing “honour” violence. My father vowed to hunt me down and kill me because I’d “dishonoured” the family by running away, so I changed all our identities and we stayed in hiding up until a few years ago when I found out my father had died. It’s been a constant worry and battle to survive but we have our freedom and we live without fear, so any struggles are worth the fight.