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Out of the Shadows: Child Marriage in Ethiopia

AMHARA REGION, Ethiopia, 20 September 2012 (TrustLaw) – Kasansh squats to make a fire, using one hand to stack wood and the other to steady her daughter, who reaches for her mother’s breast. Since she awoke at 7 a.m., Kasansh has made injera, Ethiopia’s traditional spongy flatbread. She gathered firewood. And she walked about a half-mile to fetch water from a spring, hauling the container across rocky terrain to her home.

There was a time when 17-year-old Kasansh’s mornings would include a walk to school. But that seems like a far away memory these days, ever since her parents halted her studies to make her wed a man she didn’t know. Now Kasansh feels she has no choice: “I have a home and a child,” she says through an interpreter, “so I can’t go back to school now.”  

Strikingly beautiful with haunting, distant eyes, Kasansh is one of hundreds of thousands of child brides in northern Ethiopia’s Amhara region who, despite laws against it, are married in often secret ceremonies to men eight or more years their senior. Some girls are as young as six. Most don’t learn they’re getting married until a week or days before the ceremony. Many remain isolated in remote villages.

Wives and mothers, but not yet adults, these girls spend their days largely invisible to others.

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), in partnership with CARE-Ethiopia and the Nike Foundation, is working to create a different environment for young married girls like Kasansh, one where they are valued by others and where they can gain the ability to have a kernel of control over their lives. By empowering them, these child brides are likely to have a better chance of not only becoming healthy, productive adults, but also mothers who may one day stand against their own daughters being forced to marry.

The effort is called TESFA, which means “hope” in Amharic. It targets 5,000 child brides in Amhara – most are between 14 and 19 – with education about sexual and reproductive health, how to save and invest money and lessons on everything from how to care for a newborn to how to communicate in a relationship. It is one of the few programs worldwide for the often overlooked population of married adolescent girls. And today, in honor of the first International Day of the Girl Child on Oct. 11, ICRW begins a four-part series, with a new story each week offering a rare glimpse into the lives of child brides and how TESFA is making a difference for them.

The program is one of ICRW’s latest endeavors in a nearly 20-year commitment to studying child marriage and devising solutions to prevent it. ICRW is now taking a unique approach by focusing on understanding what works to empower girls who are already married and better conditions for them within the system they must live.

Meanwhile, calls for action are growing louder, with international organizations such as ICRW banding together to spotlight child brides’ plight and their potential. Grassroots groups around the world are mobilizing against the practice, too. And legislators in the United States, Great Britain and elsewhere are pushing legislation to eliminate early marriage.

Advocates and research experts say that the movement to end child marriage and support girls like Kasansh who are already married will not only better the lives of millions of girls worldwide – it will also better the world.

Childhood ends after vows

Forced marriage persists around the globe, from Nepal to Nicaragua and Yemen to Uganda. It’s a complex tradition, one fueled by poverty and gender inequality; tied to parents’ desire to provide more for their family, and to a certain extent, protect their daughters.

In many developing nations where girls are often valued less than boys, marrying daughters early can be viewed as a way to ease a family’s financial burden; it’s one less mouth to feed, one less body to clothe. In some countries, child marriage can mean a small dowry or a gift of cattle or land to farm from the future husband’s family. And as is often the case worldwide, including in Amhara, girls’ virginity holds a high price: many parents believe early marriage protects their daughters from sexual violence and “dishonor,” and secures their economic future.

But for girls like Kasansh, there is little benefit to this arrangement. Girls’ childhood swiftly ends with the exchange of vows: Worldwide, most child brides drop out of school. Girl wives are more likely to experience domestic violence. Their mobility is restricted and they have little power in household decisions. And in many countries, young brides often are at risk of a slew of health problems, including life-threatening complications from early pregnancy and childbirth.

“The overwhelming majority of births to adolescents happen within marriage, not outside it,” says ICRW’s Jeffrey Edmeades, a social demographer who leads the TESFA program for ICRW. “That’s why supporting these girls when they first wed and become mothers is so critical – it will impact their and their family’s health and economic status for decades.”

Despite the tragic outcomes and despite the pull of custom, research experts say traditions can change. Indeed, in Ethiopia, health ministry and school efforts to educate about the health and long-term economic consequences of child marriage are leading some families to consider alternatives for their daughters’ futures. Still, more global attention is needed for girls who are already married and no longer in school – girls who feel they have no choice, no chance for a fuller life.

They are girls like Kasansh who, for now, remains one of the invisible ones.

A young bride’s new life

Kasansh and her 28-year-old husband Shiferaw live at the edge of a cliff in a small, traditional home with dirt floors and a cone-shaped straw roof. Most every day for Kasansh is filled with household chores – gathering firewood and water, caring for their 1-year-old daughter, cooking, sweeping.

Kasansh is not yet participating in TESFA, but will start in December, along with nearly 480 other married girls.

She speaks in almost a whisper, her eyes downcast. She is happiest, she says, when she’s able to be with other girls her age.

She was 15 when she learned three days before her wedding that she was getting married. That night, an uncle brought Kasansh to her in-laws’ home where she lived for her first year of marriage. “I cried the first two, three days,” she says. “And after that, the family helped me get through it.”

After a year, Kasansh moved in with Shiferaw, a lanky man with an easy, friendly smile. “I didn’t understand what was going on. I was still a child,” she says. Later, she didn’t understand how a baby came to grow in her belly.

It’s a fate neither she nor Shiferaw wants for their daughter.

“I want her to go to school, finish school and get a job,” says Shiferaw, who dropped out of first grade to help his family farm.

“I’m not giving away my daughter. I am very sure. Even if [the suitor] has land – I won’t give away my daughter.”

Kasansh’s future, however, may already have been determined by her own parents’ decision. She wanted to finish her studies, get a government job one day. She feels there’s no chance of that now that she’s married.

She is a different person today since being forced to wed.

“I’m much older now than I used to be a year ago,” Kasansh says. “I feel like I’ve lived more than my age.”

Read the original article on the Trust Law website.