‘I want some­thing dif­fer­ent to this’

So­mali girl, 14, sold into mar­riage to save starv­ing fam­ily in deadly drought

The Star Late Edition - - NEWS - THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT

AS THE vil­lage wells dried up and her live­stock died in the scorched scrub­land of south­ern So­ma­lia, Ab­dir Hus­sein had one last chance to save her fam­ily from star­va­tion: the beauty of her 14-year-old daugh­ter, Zeinab.

Last year, an older man of­fered $1 000 (R13 296) for her dowry, enough to take her ex­tended fam­ily to Dolow, a town on the Ethiopian bor­der where in­ter­na­tional aid agen­cies are hand­ing out food and water to fam­i­lies flee­ing a dev­as­tat­ing drought. She re­fused.

“I would rather die. It is bet­ter that I run into the bush and be eaten by lions,” said the slen­der dark-eyed girl in a high, soft voice.

“Then we will stay and starve to death and the an­i­mals will eat all of our bones,” her mother shot back.

The ex­change, re­lated to Reuters by the teenager and her mother, is typ­i­cal of the choices facing So­mali fam­i­lies af­ter two years of lit­tle rain. Crops have with­ered and the white bones of live­stock are scat­tered across the Horn of Africa na­tion.

The dis­as­ter is part of an arc of hunger and vi­o­lence threat­en­ing 20 mil­lion peo­ple as it stretches across Africa into the Mid­dle East.

It ex­tends from the red soil of Nige­ria in the west, where Boko Haram’s six-year ji­hadi in­sur­gency has forced 2 mil­lion peo­ple to flee their homes, to Ye­men’s white deserts in the east, where war­ring fac­tions block aid while chil­dren starve.

Be­tween them lie So­ma­lia’s parched sands and the swamps of oil-rich South Su­dan, where starv­ing fam­i­lies flee­ing three years of civil war sur­vive on water-lily roots.

Parts of South Su­dan are al­ready suf­fer­ing famine, the first in six years.

In So­ma­lia, the UN says more than half the 12 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion need aid. A sim­i­lar drought in 2011, ex­ac­er­bated by years of civil war, sparked the world’s last famine, which killed 260 000 peo­ple.

Now the coun­try teeters on the brink again. At the mo­ment, the death toll is still in the hun­dreds but the num­bers will spike if the MarchMay rains fail. The fore­cast is not good. As US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump threat­ens to slash aid bud­gets, the UN says the drought and con­flicts in the four coun­tries are fu­elling hu­man­ity’s great­est col­lec­tive dis­as­ter since World War II.

“We stand at a crit­i­cal point in his­tory,” un­der­sec­re­tary-gen­eral for hu­man­i­tar­ian af­fairs Stephen O’Brien told the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil in March. “We are facing the largest hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis since the cre­ation of the UN.”

The UN needs $4.4 bil­lion by July, he said.

So far it has re­ceived $590 mil­lion. Miss­ing from the sta­tis­tics are the heart-wrench­ing choices fam­i­lies make ev­ery day to sur­vive.

Shel­ter­ing un­der the bare branches of a thorn tree as she waited for a cup of flour, one mother who just ar­rived in Dolow said she had been feed­ing her younger chil­dren while the older ones went hun­gry. An­other had left her sick 5-year-old son by the side of the road with dis­tant kins­men as she led chil­dren who could still walk to­wards help. A third woman bid good­bye to her crip­pled hus­band and walked through the desert for a week, car­ry­ing their tod­dler, to the place where there was food.

Hus­sein traded Zeinab’s free­dom for the lives of her sis­ters.

“I felt so bad,” she said in the ragged dome of sticks, rags and plas­tic that shel­ters her and 14 other rel­a­tives.

“I ended the dreams of my baby. But with­out the money from the dowry, we would all have died.”

Zeinab, whose hen­naed hands are also cov­ered with her own inky teenage doo­dles, wears a tight-fit­ting head­scarf and a long, drab skirt.

Un­der­neath are a pair of trousers with a spray of coloured rhine­stones at the bot­tom, and an iron will. She wants to be an English teacher. She wants to fin­ish school. She does not want to be mar­ried.

“I want some­thing dif­fer­ent to this,” she said, as her 2-yearold nephew rolled naked in the sand and his baby brother cried weakly.

Weighed against Zeinab’s dreams were the lives of 20 nieces and neph­ews, the sons and daugh­ters of her three el­der sis­ters, all mar­ried young and all wid­owed or di­vorced.

“There was also her care­worn older brother, her gap­toothed younger sis­ter and her mid­dle-aged par­ents. Once the fam­ily had cows and goats and three don­keys that they hired out with carts for trans­port. But the an­i­mals died around them and Zeinab be­came their only hope of es­cape.

For a month, she re­fused, with­draw­ing into her­self and run­ning away when they for­got to lock her room. Fi­nally, faced with her fam­ily’s over­whelm­ing need, she re­lented.

“We didn’t want to force her,” her mother said wearily, worry lines etched into her fore­head as her daugh­ter sat stony-faced be­side her.

“I could not sleep for stress. My eyes were so tired I could not thread a nee­dle.”

The dowry was re­ceived, the mar­riage cel­e­brated, and union con­sum­mated. Zeinab stayed three days and ran away.

And when her fam­ily hired cars to drive them the 40km to Dolow, Zeinab went with them.

She en­rolled in the lo­cal school, where stick walls topped by cor­ru­gated iron sheets serve as class­rooms for 10 teach­ers and around 500 stu­dents. Her hus­band fol­lowed. “He says, if the girl re­fuses me I must get my money back. Or I will take her by force,” Zeinab said. “He sends me mes­sages say­ing give me the money or I will be with you as your hus­band.”

Her fam­ily can­not re­pay even a frac­tion of the dowry. Their only as­sets are their two stained foam mat­tresses, three cook­ing pots and the or­ange tar­pau­lin that cov­ers their makeshift dome. There is noth­ing else to sell.

Then Zeinab’s English teacher Ab­di­weli Mo­hammed Hersi de­cided to step in. Hersi has seen hun­dreds of stu­dents drop out due to the drought.

One girl left to work as a do­mes­tic worker to help feed her fam­ily.

Her gen­er­a­tion was the first where the daugh­ters were sent to school. Five girls this year also left for forced or early mar­riages, Hersi said.

Young, re­luc­tant brides are not un­heard of in So­ma­lia, but they are less com­mon in good times, he said, at least in Dolow.

“Be­fore the drought, the cases were less,” he said. “Some par­ents do give their chil­dren to other men to get that money.”

No one knows how many fam­i­lies are mak­ing choices like Zeinab’s.

“While we don’t yet have firm data, we un­der­stand from some re­ports that the num­bers are small but in­creas­ing, par­tic­u­larly in the south and cen­tral re­gions,” said Jean Lo­kenga, chief of child pro­tec­tion for the UN Chil­dren’s Fund in So­ma­lia.

Other aid groups said most drought-stricken fam­i­lies are too poor to pay dowries af­ter their an­i­mals died. None knew of a pro­gramme to help girls like Zeinab.

Hersi took Zeinab to a lo­cal aid group, who took her to Ital­ian aid group Co­op­er­azione In­ter­nazionale.

The re­gional co-or­di­na­tor, visiting on a trip with EU donors, de­cided to in­ter­vene.

“We must do some­thing for the girl,” said Deka Warsame, pour­ing tea for col­leagues gath­ered to hear the story as the call to prayer sounded through the rooftops. “Or it will be a rape ev­ery night.”

Her staff held a col­lec­tion and came up with enough cash to re­pay the dowry.

Warsame told Zeinab the group would me­di­ate a meet­ing be­tween the men of the two fam­i­lies. Her hus­band would get back his money if he di­vorced her in front of wit­nesses.

Zeinab’s dark eyes flicked up from the floor. “Will I be free?” she asked.

We must do some­thing for the girl, or it will be a rape ev­ery night

PIC­TURE: ANDY HALL / OXFAM

SEEK­ING REFUGE: A fam­ily gath­ers sticks and branches for fire­wood and build­ing ma­te­ri­als in Ifo sec­tion. Dadaab is the largest refugee camp in the world with peo­ple flee­ing the civil war in So­ma­lia. In re­cent months the rate of new ar­rivals has in­creased dra­mat­i­cally due to the added fac­tor of drought.

PIC­TURE: BEN CUR­TIS / AP

HU­MAN­I­TAR­IAN CRI­SIS: The car­cass of a dead goat lies in the desert in a drought-stricken area near Ban­dar Beyla in Punt­land. So­ma­lia has de­clared the drought a na­tional dis­as­ter.

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