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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Child marriage on the rise as conflict in Yemen continues 

Forced marriages have led to suicide among young brides

Scenery of The Southern Dhofar. Jabal Al-qamar. Oman. Bildagentur-online / UIG via Getty Images
Scenery of The Southern Dhofar. Jabal Al-qamar. Oman. Bildagentur-online / UIG via Getty Images

As far as Mubarak is concerned, he is just a middleman satisfying a need.

The 41-year-old, a Yemeni refugee, supplies young brides in the country where he now lives: Oman.

The war in his homeland means business has never been better.

"Omani men in Salalah pay good money for one of them," he said of a southern Oman city where some of the child brides have ended up.

"These men are married but want a very young second wife. And on the cheap side," he added.

The sellers are impoverished families. For 2,500 rials, around $6,500, one fifth of which involves bribes in Yemen, he can supply a bride, aged as young as 15.

"From that amount I pay 1,500 rials to the parents, 500 rials to the authorities in Yemen helping me to get them out and the remainder is my commission. Everyone is happy," said Mubarak, who would only use his first name.

Contacted by The National, local dignitaries in Dhofar, the southern Oman province where the brides cross the border into Oman, acknowledged it was happening. Local police refused to comment. Sources at Oman's Interior Ministry said that 120 Yemeni women had been documented as marrying citizens in the past three years, but insisted all had been documented legitimately.

UNICEF told The National that some Yemeni families had resorted to selling their daughters off to marriage, often while they are still underage. A financial aid programme to help deter parents from doing so has been set up by the UN agency.

"It has a lot to do with poverty and the fact that families are not able to cater to the needs of their daughters," said Juliette Touma, UNICEF's chief spokeswoman for the Middle East and North Africa.

Nada Foundation, a Yemen-based sister organisation of Girls not Brides, said that many of the Yemeni girls smuggled out of the country into Oman are then being sold as brides across the GCC.

"More than 250 girls have been forcibly married for social reasons or difficult living conditions, most of whom are displaced from war or exploited for the loss of their parents or their displacement," said a spokeswoman from Nada Foundation.

They said that six women committed suicide in Yemen last year as a result of forced marriage. A larger number of deaths occur from complications from pregnancy.

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The civil war in Yemen has further shattered the poorest country in the Arab world, leaving millions in need of humanitarian aid.

Oman government officials said around 2,500 were in shelters around the country. Most of them passed through the border at Sarfayt.

"We of course know about the young brides transported here," Sheikh Mansoor Al Shahri, a local tribal leader, told The National.

"We already reported these activities to the police. That's all we can do."

"I would not say it is widespread, but it has been happening with alarming frequency since the war started in Yemen."

A dire economic situation is also fuelling the smuggling of livestock and qat, a highly intoxicating and addictive leaf that is heavily consumed in Yemen. It is illegal in Oman.

"We know about the qat and also about the goats," Sheikh Mansoor added.

Locals in Sarfayt acknowledged that illegal trade had increased.

Khalil Al Mahri, an Omani citizen, runs an unlicensed ramshackle restaurant made of logs and palm fronds, just 100 metres across the Oman side of the border, seeking to capitalise on increased traffic.

Since opening in February he said border police allow him to operate in return for free meals. Smugglers, such as Mubarak, are among his paying customers.

“A lot of good people are turning into thieves just to survive and feed their families. The Yemeni border patrol officers are bribed to let stolen goods out of the country. They don't ask for business validation or paperwork," Mr Al Mahri said.

The 41-year-old added: "I have to feed the border police for free not to have me removed here. But I make some money from people crossing the border. It is not a bad business and I see a lot here that I should not see."

A little further away, Belal a refugee, told The National he smuggled qat leaves - they grow wild in Yemen - into Oman.

"That border is making money for a lot of people since the civil war started back home. I was a schoolteacher earning an equivalent of 45 riyals a month in Aden. Now, my income on a good month is 1,200 Omani riyals a month. On a bad month 700 riyals. That's not bad," he said, his tongue having turned green from chewing on a qat leaf.

Even with the restrictions imposed on him due to his refugee status, the former teacher is able to cross the border with ease.

"I have a passport in another name which I can use anytime I want. I use another name here in Oman, which is registered on my refugee card. It is that simple and easy," he said.

No one at Oman's Interior Ministry would speak on the record about activities at the border with Yemen.

However, a ministry source maintained that border security and procedures were tight.

Referring to Yemeni women who had married Omani citizens, the source said: "Our records show that they all had legal papers on their residency in Oman before they got married to Omani men. In other words, they have been accepted as refugees before their marriage. We are not aware of any of them being smuggled in from Yemen."