Drought and famine across the Horn of Africa are forcing families to make impossible choices. 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.
Reuters journalist Katharine Houreld and photojournalist Zohra Bensemra visited Zeinab and her family. IBTimes UK shares their harrowing story.
An older man offered $1,000 for her dowry, enough to take her extended family to Dollow, a town on the Ethiopian border where international aid agencies are handing out food and water to families fleeing a devastating drought.
Zeinab refused. “I would rather die. It is better that I run into the bush and be eaten by lions,” she said. “Then we will stay and starve to death and the animals will eat all of our bones,” her mother shot back.
The family had previously owned 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 to agree to marriage, withdrawing into herself and running away when they forgot to lock her in her room. Finally, faced with her family’s overwhelming need, Zeinab 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. When her family hired cars to drive them the 40km to Dollow, Zeinab went with them. Her husband followed. “He said, if the girl refuses me I must get my money back. Or I will take her by force,” Zeinab said, quietly. “He sends me messages saying give me the money or I will be with you as your husband.”
Her family could not 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.