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Challenging Child Marriage

Ethiopia has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world today. This year's International Women's Day theme - connecting girls, inspiring futures - is an opportunity to celebrate the inspiring efforts of young girls in Ethiopia who are trying to convince parents not to marry off their peers.

Imagine being an eleven year old girl coming home from school, exercise books in hand, considering how to fit your homework around the many waiting tasks, like collecting firewood and water, helping look after your siblings and relatives, and preparing an evening meal. Also in your head are thoughts of lessons learned and games played at school.

But as you approach the round, thatched house that is home, adult voices pass through the mud walls and open door. You hear what they are discussing. Your parents are talking to strangers about your wedding in two weeks' time. With a sudden, heavy numbness you feel your dreams, plans, and self-confidence vanish. You realise fearfully that although it is your life, you were never supposed to have a choice.

Voicing our right not to marry
CHADET, ChildHope's partner organisation in Ethiopia, is strengthening school girls club in Ethiopia so girls can have a choice. Supported by CHADET and local teachers, girls as young as twelve are now actively persuading parents to stop arranging child marriages, enabling girls to continue their education.

"When we learn that parents of one of the girls are planning to give her away into marriage, we visit the parents and try to dissuade them. We tell them about the risks such as fistula and lifelong regret of not completing education or being unable to read or write. If they refuse we report them to teachers."

Tigist, a member of girls' club

Since the beginning of the year, members of one primary school girls' club have rescued 28 peers from child marriage.

Preliminary findings of a study commissioned by ChildHope and CHADET in the Amhara region, reveal that girls who are forced to marry feel extremely let down by their families, particularly their fathers and their brothers. The girls believe if the brothers denounced child marriage, their parents would be more likely to annul the marriage. The reality is that girls are married without their free and full consent.

The effects of early marriage on girls' futures
In marking International Women's Day's theme we must remember that forced marriage occurs when girls have fewer rights and lower status relative to men. The impact of early marriage on girls' futures is usually severe: missed education, heavy marital responsibilities, abrupt transition into sexual relations with a husband who is usually considerably older and not her husband of choice. There is also the risk of prolonged or obstructed labour in the first birth which can result in obstetric fistulas where healthcare is poor.

Even though Ethiopia's revised family code of 2003 made child marriage illegal, the country still has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. One in two girls marry before their 18th birthday and one in five girls marry before turning 15. In Amhara region we are expanding our child protection work as over 48% of girls are forced into marriage before 15, the highest rate in Ethiopia. Our work is being strengthened by government awareness-raising campaigns against child marriage. Girls in schools have been supported and inspired to speak out against early marriage and speak up for their rights, in particular the right to education.

"Parents might have a religious ceremony where people come and eat and dance but the bride is not shown. It's a wedding, but they keep the bride away so they can't be arrested. That means when we hear that a religious ceremony is taking place we go and see if it's really that, or if it's a hidden wedding. But you can't even really know by going there, because the bride and groom are not sitting there. You see people dancing and drinking local beer but you don't know why. From January to May, after harvest season, you have many such hidden marriage ceremonies here."

A Police Inspector describing the challenges in Ethiopia

Understanding cultural traditions
Understanding the underlying reasons why parents continue to marry off their daughters is essential to support the courageous efforts of girl club members. Our study reveals that simple economic motivation is not always the most important reason. Betrothing girls at birth and the need to strengthen family relationships with the groom's family are some of the main reasons fuelling child marriage. It also reveals that many sons have an authority and influence over parents that daughters simply do not enjoy, especially in rural areas.

"I saw other girls going to school and I was angry. I decided I wanted my brother's help - my brothers are against early marriage"

Awzat told how her lucky escape from marriage was due to her brother's support and conviction. If boys joined efforts of girl clubs - the future of many girls in Ethiopia at risk of child marriage could be different.

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