CAIRO — The girl did not know whether it was night or day when she plotted her escape from a house in Yemen. Her husband had locked the girl in a windowless room.
“He was mean to me because I didn’t want to touch him,” she said.
He was 35. She was 14.
But the girl, Mohsina, was not only a victim of child marriage. She was a casualty of a war that has plunged her country into a humanitarian catastrophe. For Mohsina’s family, marrying off their underage daughter earned a $ 1,300 dowry — enough to feed them for a year.
Yemen is a country in crisis. After more than two years of war, its infrastructure has been badly damaged and its people impoverished, with hundreds of thousands sickened with cholera. But hidden among the numbing statistics of death and destruction is another insidious scourge: Desperate families are increasingly selling their daughters off as child brides or letting their boys be recruited as child soldiers.
“It is impossible to say how many kids are being pulled out of school now to be married off or sent to fight, but we know that more and more parents are doing this,” said Meritxell Relano, the United Nations Children’s Fund representative in Yemen. “The lack of livelihood and unemployment is forcing them to do this.”
Saudi Arabia and its allies have bombed Yemen for more than two years, hoping to oust Iranian-aligned rebels who seized power. The Saudi alliance has so far failed to achieve its objective, but the war has instead imposed a stiff penalty on the civilian population — especially children.
According to the United Nations, one in two Yemeni children now suffers from stunted growth because of food shortages. Malnutrition has also left them vulnerable to illness. Teachers are not being paid, and 12,000 of the nation’s 14,400 schools are effectively closed. More than 700,000 Yemenis — half of them children — have suffered from cholera.
Mohsina, whose family name has not been used to protect her identity, said in a telephone interview from a safe house in Sana, Yemen’s capital, that during the month she spent with her new husband, he beat and raped her nightly, often leaving her bleeding and in too much pain to stand. So she convinced him that she wanted to contribute to the household finances by begging on the roadside.
“The minute I was on the street, I ran,” said Mohsina, who is now 15.
Yemeni law does not set a legal age for marriage, nor does it criminalize marital rape.
Yemen’s conflict began in 2014 when Shiite rebels from the north, known as the Houthis, allied with parts of the armed forces and stormed Sana, later pushing the internationally recognized government into exile. That led to the involvement of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in the conflict that followed, which has shattered the country, with competing administrations in the north and south.
The fighting has also forced many families to make the most of their dwindling assets. In some cases, those assets are their children.
“All my girlfriends are either getting married or praying for a divorce,” Mohsina said.
Mohsina was forced to marry a man she did not know, Fawzy Mohamed, last winter after the potato chip factory where her father worked in Sana was destroyed in an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition, which is supported by the United States.
Unable to find new work, her father, the family’s sole breadwinner, accepted Mr. Mohamed’s offer of a $ 1,300 dowry, she said.
She had never seen her husband, a distant cousin, before getting on a bus with a relative for an hourslong ride to his hometown with nothing but the clothes on her back. On the way, the relative told her that Mr. Mohamed worked as a garbage collector and already had another wife and children.
There was no wedding ceremony.
“When I got there, Fawzy told me to undress,” Mohsina said. “I didn’t want to, so he started kicking and slapping me.”
After she managed to flee, she returned to Sana, where she lives with the family of Maged al-Ajmal, a wealthy tribal leader who has converted a room in his house into an informal shelter for abused girls.
He temporarily takes in about 10 girls fleeing early marriages every six months, he said. Mohsina is the seventh he has received this year.
Mohsina said her father refused to take her back, because it would mean returning the dowry. So Mr. Ajmal is trying to raise the money so that her husband will accept a divorce.“What her husband did to her destroyed her psychologically,” Mr. Ajmal said.
Neither her father nor her husband could be reached for comment.
The war has also preyed on boys’ childhoods. Many child soldiers have been sent to the front lines by poverty-stricken parents who need their sons’ meager pay of about $ 55 every three months — enough money to support a family of five for two weeks.
Before the war, the United Nations had documented about 900 child soldiers in Yemen. Now, it has found about 1,800, according to Ms. Relano. The actual number is assumed to be higher.
“I only joined the fight after I got sick of sleeping all day,” said a 17-year-old fighter who joined the Houthis in Saada Province, near the Saudi border, last year. “Most of my classmates are now my comrades.”
He and his father, a civil servant, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the rebels, who deny the presence of child soldiers in their ranks.
“He thinks there is no alternative,” his father said. “He also knew I had no money, and he wanted to help.”
As with early marriages, children’s rights advocates say the war makes it hard to determine how widespread the use of child soldiers is, but they believe that it has spread in recent years and that it is more common among the Houthis than other armed groups.
Activists say the warring parties discreetly recruit children, many of them well under 18, flouting the country’s minimum age restriction for military service.
“These officers tell the boys that they can’t claim to be men or Yemenis without joining the fight,” the father said. “It’s a cruel thing to do to a child. They don’t understand the risks they are taking, and they feel like they will be worthless if they don’t go with their friends to fight.”