|This is the second story in a four-part series offering a rare glimpse into the lives of child brides in Ethiopia and how ICRW is making a difference for them.|
AMHARA REGION, Ethiopia – Yeshi-Alem drapes a small, woven book bag over her left shoulder for the short walk to her first class. She enters the gate of her village’s only school, six mud and straw buildings in the shape of a horseshoe where students sit three to a desk and where white chalk powder colors teachers’ fingertips.
On the school’s grounds, she passes a tree with a fading sign in Amharic that reads “Teaching girls is like teaching a whole community,” before settling into the front row of her civics class of 55 students. Yeshi-Alem is happy to once again have a chance to learn.
Being able to go to school is just one of several wins in the past year that has transformed her from a shy, self-conscious girl into an outspoken evangelist for girls’ education, access to birth control and for girls to have a say in when and whom they marry. Yeshi-Alem knows about not having such choices: She was forced to marry when she was 10 and dropped out when she had her son a few years later.
Now 18, Yeshi-Alem credits an International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and CARE-Ethiopia program with helping her gain the confidence to convince her husband to let her return to school and hold off on having more children. Without the program, called TESFA, “I would have been giving birth every year,” she says.
TESFA, which means “hope” in Amharic, targets 5,000 child brides in Ethiopia’s Amhara region – most are between 14 and 19 – with information 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. The program ultimately aims to empower child brides to advocate for themselves. By doing so, these girls likely will have a better chance of not only growing into healthy, productive adults, but also mothers who one day may stand against their own daughters being forced to marry. Indeed, they and their communities could ultimately have a role in eliminating the harmful practice of child marriage – at least in their corner of the world.
TESFA takes place in a region that has the highest rate of child marriage in Ethiopia, and one of the highest worldwide. It is one of the few programs globally that focuses on married adolescent girls. Although they make up the majority of sexually active girls in developing countries, according to Population Council they tend to be overlooked by sexual and reproductive health programs, which traditionally focus on unmarried girls and adult women.
“In Amhara and elsewhere globally, child brides are very isolated and not part of any ‘system,’ per se – they’re not registered at birth, not registered in school and don’t visit doctors regularly,” says ICRW’s Jeffrey Edmeades who directs TESFA “That makes them a particularly challenging population to identify and work with.”
Wives and mothers, yet still children, their needs are unique to those of their unmarried peers.
“These girls have had such a swift transition from being a child to running a household, being a mother – and are constantly being exploited by their husbands and in-laws,” says Dr. Feven Tassew, sexual reproductive health program coordinator for CARE-Ethiopia. “They have little or no exposure to education, friends, or even their family. Every basic right they have is violated.”
For the TESFA project team, the challenge has been to create a program that gives girls a voice and direction within the confines of a life they did not choose.
Reach married girls early
With funding from the Nike Foundation, TESFA kicked off in 2010 in two rural districts of the Amhara region, where almost half of the girls marry by age 15 and nearly three out of four marry by 18.
In the program, one group of girls learns about sexual and reproductive health, including basic information that most don’t know, such as how and why menstruation happens. Another learns about saving and investing money, and a third receives lessons in both areas. In each group there are smaller groups, each of which is facilitated by one of the girls.
ICRW is testing whether combining health and economic empowerment programming has a greater impact on girls’ lives than providing such information separately.
Meanwhile, TESFA’s adult “gatekeepers” – husbands, in-laws, religious leaders and others – serve as liaisons between the program and the villages in which it takes place. Gatekeepers’ support has helped legitimize the program and girls’ participation.
“The mother-in-law and husband play a great supporting role to make sure the girls can participate in the program,” Tassew says. “And almost all the girls testify that this is why TESFA is working.”
Worldwide, husbands and mothers-in-law hold significant power over married adolescents, deciding where they go or what they do outside of the domestic sphere. In Amhara, in-laws also traditionally decide when it’s time for young wives to consummate their marriage, which is usually when the girls’ physical changes at puberty become apparent. ICRW found that on average, girls in TESFA had their first sexual experience at 13 years old.
Most interviewed for this series described painful, unwanted first sexual encounters with their husbands. Few understood what was happening. Some girls said they realized they were pregnant only when an adult explained why something was moving in their belly.
Child brides worldwide have little power to negotiate safe sex practices with their husbands, and face an increased risk of contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted illnesses. And according to UNICEF, 70,000 girls aged 15 to 19 die each year due to complications from pregnancy and childbirth. Meanwhile, children born to young girls are more likely to experience malnutrition, stunting and ongoing health problems.
“Child marriage is directly tied to maternal and child mortality and illness,” Edmeades says. “This is why it’s so critical to reach married girls early and provide them with the kind of information that could very well save their lives.”
Imagining a future
For Yeshi-Alem, being involved in TESFA appears to have sparked a turning point.
At 18, she’s been married nearly half her life to her husband Moges, who is believed to be 28. Like most child brides globally, Yeshi-Alem didn’t realized she had been promised to a man. Not until she says her family one day took her on a horse from her home to her future in-laws’ house for the wedding ceremony. The next day, Yeshi-Alem went back to her home.
She spent the next few years shuffling between her village and her husband’s, an hour’s walk away. Then, at 15 or possibly earlier – few here are certain of their age – the family decided it was time for Yeshi-Alem to move in with Moges. She dropped out of school once their son Girma was born.
Recently, her mother-in-law had been pressuring her to have more children. “‘What’s the use of a wife if she doesn’t give birth?'” Yeshi-Alem says she told her. She knew she wasn’t ready for another child, so she applied what she learned in TESFA to convince Moges to let her use birth control.
If she had another baby, she wouldn’t be able to take care of it well, Yeshi-Alem told him. She would focus on breast-feeding the newborn because that’s good for brain development. But she may not be able to give as much attention to 4-year-old Girma. What’s more, “We don’t have land, so we can’t afford to clothe two kids, feed two kids and send two kids to school.”
“‘If you promise to take care of the older one,'” Yeshi-Alem says she told Moges, ” ‘I’ll have another one.’ “
His response? “No, no, no!” she says, laughing.
Yeshi-Alem also used her newfound negotiation savvy to convince Moges to let her return to school. Now she attends classes in the morning, and in the afternoon helps Moges at a store the couple operates, which is stocked with everything from candles to bags of barley. She also serves customers at a small food and tea shop the couple recently added to the store.
TESFA, complemented by information provided by local health workers about reproductive health and the consequences of early marriage, are slowly contributing to subtle shifts in behaviors and attitudes in this corner of Amhara. For girls like Yeshi-Alem, such changes may very well help redirect the course of their lives.
She says she feels like a different person now. When asked how, a smile stretches across her face. She’s enjoying a newly discovered confidence. She says no longer feels shy. She talks to everyone, spreading the word about the harms of early marriage, encouraging neighbors to keep their daughters in school.
“TESFA project,” Yeshi-Alem says, “has opened my eyes.”
Gillian Gaynair is ICRW’s senior writer and editor.