British girls are being sold as child brides like I was, says campaigner

March 8, 2017 OPINION/NEWS

Flora Bartlett/Reuters



Emma Batha

When Gabriella Gillespie was six her father killed her mother; when she was 13 he took her and her sisters to his native Yemen and sold them as child brides.

Her 17-year-old sister Issy killed herself on her wedding night rather than marry the man in his 60s to whom she had been promised.

Dressed in her wedding finery, she hurled herself from the roof of the building where guests had gathered to celebrate.

Despite her sister’s suicide Gillespie was not spared. She spent a decade trapped in a violent marriage with a man who raped and beat her so badly she was “left at death’s door many times”.

Gillespie eventually fled back to Britain with her five children.

But her father, who had threatened to kill her for dishonouring the family, continued to hunt her until his death six years ago. She published her memoir, A Father’s Betrayal, in 2014.

“I decided to speak out because I want people to understand what really happens to young girls when they are taken out of this country and sold as child brides,” said Gillespie, who won the True Honour Award on Tuesday night in recognition of her courage in campaigning against honour-based violence.

She says British girls – from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds – are still being taken abroad and married off as children.

“I don’t think people understand the true horrors of what they go through. The trauma is with you for life,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I have moved on and am very blessed with the life I have today. But some wounds will never heal.”





Gillespie, now 52, and her three older sisters grew up with their English mother and Yemeni father in the Welsh city of Newport.

Their childhood was “very British” – they did not speak Arabic and knew little about their father’s homeland.

Gillespie, who was named Muna by her parents but changed her identity after fleeing Yemen, remembers her early childhood as happy.

But one day her mother vanished. A year later their father was jailed for manslaughter and the sisters moved to a foster home until his release four years later.

Gillespie says they did not believe their father had killed their mother and it was many years before they learnt the truth.

In May 1977, on her 13th birthday, her father announced he would take his three younger daughters on “a fantastic holiday” to Yemen. They had never been abroad and were wildly excited.

Gillespie knew so little about Yemen that she wore a crop top, miniskirt and platform shoes for the trip.

She realised something was wrong as she stepped off the plane. “We were just terrified as soon as we got there,” she said.

Their uncle confiscated their passports and kept them under lock and key. Within a fortnight Gillespie’s 14-year-old sister Yas was married off, but was soon returned as “damaged goods” after trying to kill herself.

The sisters ended up living in a mountain village where the houses were made of mud, there was no running water, no electricity, no cars and nobody spoke English.

“We learnt Arabic very quickly, we learnt how to cook, how to clean, how to fetch water, how to dress, how to not answer back. We learnt very quickly how to be proper Arab girls,” she said.

“You had no choice but to learn because if not you’d get beaten to a pulp.”





Gillespie said almost all the girls in her village were married by the age of 15. Some were wed as young as eight or nine, and some died on their wedding night.

“These girls are being raped by their older husbands,” she said. “And many of these girls, if they don’t die on their wedding night, they are torn and left with lifelong injuries.”

To consummate the marriage the young girl is placed on a throne covered with a white cloth, Gillespie said. Afterwards the bloodied cloth is displayed proudly to the family.

“If the bride doesn’t bleed and prove that she is a virgin she is returned to her family and killed,” Gillespie said.

Girls are so terrified of not bleeding they sometimes carry vials of animal blood as a precaution.





Gillespie was sold to the son of an extremely wealthy man with an appetite for alcohol and drugs. “It was a very, very violent marriage,” she said.

One night he broke her nose, dragged her through broken glass, beat her unconscious and raped her as their young children slept nearby. On another occasion she ended up in hospital for a week. He even attacked her when she was pregnant.

Gillespie was warned that if she left the marriage her children would remain with her husband, as is customary in Yemen.

As the violence escalated, village elders intervened, shaming her father into taking his daughter back.

But the cruelty continued. At one point her father brandished a gun, telling her: “Today I’m going to kill you the same way I killed your mother.”

She finally escaped and went into hiding with her children, terrified her father would find them before the British Embassy could get them out of the country.

“He had people looking for me,” she said. “We knew what he was capable of. We had seen the ugliness in his heart.”

After returning to Britain in 1992, she and her children changed their names and kept a low profile. She only went public after her father’s death.

The True Honour awards are made by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organization, a British charity that supports victims of honour abuse and forced marriage.

Gillespie said she decided to publish her story because she wanted to prevent other girls suffering the same fate.

“This is what breaks my heart. It is still happening,” she said. “We need to speak out.”









Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change.


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