Gaza - Nawa - By Shireen Khalifeh
Ayat, 18 years, regrets the moment she gave up her childhood to accept the wedding with a man in his twenties. She thought he was her “prince charming” who would make the wishes of his princess come true. “A girl”, in the dawn of her years, whose friends of the same age have not even considered getting married, returned to her father’s house, divorced with a baby girl who will continue her life between two divorced parents.
In an interview with Nawa, Ayat said, “When my ex-husband proposed to me one and a half years ago, my father asked for my opinion. My family advised me to say yes and I said ‘yes’. Back then, I had not realized that life and family responsibilities were far beyond my abilities. I could not tolerate the intervention of my mother-in-law in every tiny detail of my life. I could not tolerate my husband’s weak personality. On top of that, I suffered medical issues because I got pregnant at a young age. I went back to my family’s house and filed for divorce. My father, who was aware of my suffering, supported my decision.
Regretting when it is too late
Her father, who sat not far from us as we were running the interview, seemed to regret this experience. He tried to find an excuse. He said, “All girls marry at this age. I did what other people do. Everybody recommended the groom and I accepted. I asked my daughter’s opinion and she consented. I lost my eldest daughter because of habits we are accustomed to. This is a destiny we accept.”
“O mother, O Mother, cry for me, o cry… I got out [of my parents’ home] and could not bid farewell to my friends [of the same generation].”, a song that Um Mahmoud from Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip still remembers. Women sang this on her wedding day when she wasonly 16. Like many other young girls, Um Mahmoud still remembers that she was not even consulted about her marriage. It was a mere formality to ask her opinion; indeed her only option was to accept and obey her father who had already given his word to the proposing groom.
Um Mahmoud is now a mother of eleven children. She suffers many illnesses that began with her first pregnancy, as a side effect of early marriage. She learned from her experience to insist that her daughters do not get married before they turn 22 years. She kept her promise.
Her neighbor, Um Haytham, insists that early marriage was a mistake her father committed. Still, she did the same with her daughters under the pretense that all girls marry at this age and that she does not want to jeopardize her daughter’s interest. She says, “I suffered many medical problems as a result of early marriage. I also suffered mental disorder, as I could not cope with the new situation with a husband in his family’s house. Still, I had my daughters marry early for I feared they would not find husbands.
Um Mahmoud interrupted the conversation to say, “The problem is not the woman, but rather the man who has the final word at the house. He is the one who usually consents to the marriage and most often the woman fails to dissuade men. I do not blame the young girls because they do not understand what early marriage means.”
The Women’s Affairs Center (WAC) became aware of this phenomenon and attempted to analyze it. It prepared a study on the reasons and outcomes of early marriage, entitled “wedding young girls”. The key reason behind early marriage is habits and traditions followed by interfamilial marriages. Most women respondents reported they had been subjected to violence during their marriage.
It should be noted that the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) reported in 2012 that 35% of marriages happened to girls below 18 years old.
The study, which is a qualitative descriptive analysis, asserted that marrying young girls is a crime since it deprives them of their childhood, education sound physical and mental health. It reiterates that at this age, girls have not reached physical, psychological or emotional maturity.
In an interview with Nawa, Hidaya Shamoun, Coordinator of Research and IT Program at the Women’s Affairs Center, explained that WAC published a book documenting stories of 100 women who were married young. The book was titled “Soul-less Body”. The analytical information provided in the study was important for the next phase of the project.
She added that the second phase involves workshops with girls aged 14-18 years to raise their awareness of the risks of early marriage. The workshops include presentation of a documentary titled “I was once a child”, produced by the WAC’s Video Program. It narrates the story of women from the Gaza Strip who went through early marriage.
She proceeded saying that the program organized 28 sessions while the Video Program organized 140 sessions with men and women from different parts of the Gaza Strip to raise their awareness of the dangers of sending young girls into marriage. The focus was placed on areas with high child marriage rates.
Shamoun also indicated that the project was called “marrying young girls” because a young girl, even if she consents to the marriage, is not quite aware of what it means to become a wife with responsibilities.
In an awareness session with Nawa Network team, the girls utterly rejected the idea of early marriage. One of them, Aseel, 16 years old, has been engaged for a month. She said she was not forced into this marriage and that even her brother’s wife is 14 years old and has been married for a year. She said that her sister in law did not suffer from any problems. Aseel believes that marrying girls this early is part of the traditions that people observe.
However, Aseel had to say that her sister-in-law suffered medical problems because of pregnancy at an early age. She expressed hope that she would not face such problems.
Her friend Maryam, 17 years old, disagreed with Aseel, and said, “Do not think this way. My mother got married at a very young age. She faced medical problems, which she still suffers from to date. I will not do this like my mother and she supports me. I advise Aseel to take ample time to think before having children, for the sake of her health.”
Their friend Dana, 17 years, said, “It is true that my mother got married at an early age, but she and my father do not wish to do the same for us. My father said he would not let us marry early and that he would not succumb to the habits and traditions.”
Dana believes that the decision to marry a girl lies in the hands of the father rather than the mother or the girl herself. It is therefore necessary to talk to fathers first. When the father consents to the marriage, the girl will not dare to say no. She asserted that her ability to reject those who propose to her stems from her father’s refusal to the idea. Otherwise, it would have been much more difficult for her.
In another session with women, Um Nahed from Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip, said, “I suffered a lot because of early marriage but I will not be able to go against my husband’s will if he agrees. This is a socially accepted phenomenon and even judges consent to this practice. Why wouldn’t there be legal mobilization?
The question raised by Um Nahed is very logical. Since the law permits marrying children below 18 years, it is certainly necessary to mobilize and amend the Personal Status Law to make it consistent with the Palestinian Child Law that stipulates that a child – of both genders – is any person below 18 years of age.