Changing the course for child brides in Ethiopia

Article Date

14 June 2013

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Enana recalls her parents bathing her many years ago to get ready for, they told her, a holiday celebration. She doesn’t remember how old she was.

“I was a child,” Enana said. “I didn’t even know how to clean myself.”

A child, but ready -in her parents’ eyes – to be a bride.

That day Enana married a much older man she didn’t know. With her nuptials, she became another statistic in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, where the rate of child marriage is among the highest in the world. She became another young girl whose opportunities and childhood were cut short. Another wife and eventually a mother – but not yet an adult – whose life often remains invisible to others.

When we met briefly last year, Enana said she was 17, but she wasn’t sure. She figured her husband was around 30 years old. They had a four year old son.

Enana was still upset about that day many years ago, and the life she was forced into. As we sat together, Enana barefoot, clutching her knees to her chest, she told me how disappointed she is in her parents for marrying her off to “that old man.” I was struck by how vocal she was – no other girl I met outwardly expressed such irritation with her parents’ decision.

“You’re supposed to be my parents,” Enana said. “You’re supposed to protect me. Even today, I still get angry thinking about it.”

Enana is now part of a program for married adolescent girls that works to equip her with skills to manage the life she didn’t choose and to gain – perhaps for the first time – a kernel of control over her future. Called TESFA, which means “hope” in Amharic, the program works to address the health and economic needs of over 5,000 child brides in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. The effort is being carried out by CARE-Ethiopia and local partners. Meanwhile, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) designed and leads the program’s evaluation.

Funded by the Nike Foundation, TESFA is one of the few efforts focusing on the often overlooked population of married adolescent girls, who number about 60 million worldwide.

ICRW researchers are currently finalizing their data on the program, and will publish their findings this fall. The effort represents one of ICRW’s latest endeavors in a nearly 20-year commitment to documenting the causes and consequences of child marriage and devising solutions to prevent it. TESFA aims to empower young married girls to advocate for themselves – within the confines of a life they did not choose. By doing so, they have a better chance of growing into healthy, productive adults, and mothers, who one day may stand against their own daughters being forced to marry. They and their communities could ultimately have a role in eliminating this harmful practice.

The goals of TESFA are reflective of ICRW’s Turning Point Campaign. Launched in 2012, the campaign focuses resources on research and programs that address the unique challenges adolescent girls face to leading healthy, productive lives as adults. Ultimately, the campaign aims to change the course for adolescent girls worldwide. Girls like Enana.

Her and other girls’ early marriage caused a jolting transition from being a child to shouldering adult responsibilities. Many young wives I met dropped out of school soon after they wed. Most described daily routines of fetching water and firewood, cooking, cleaning, and, if mothers, minding a child. Alone, with little or no help. They also described painful, unwanted first sexual encounters with their husbands; many didn’t understand what was happening. ICRW found that on average, girls in TESFA had their first sexual experience at 13.

Enana was helping her in-laws prepare dinner one night when her mother-in-law told her she would be staying with her husband that evening. It was a frightening experience, and she ran back to her parents’ home. “I went to my parents’ house believing they would protect me,” but, Enana said, “they beat me and sent me to my husband.”

She kept running away and kept being sent back. She said she felt like she didn’t have any good options between her family and her husband. However, “In time, I got used to it,” Enana said.

“Now I’m grown up and (her parents) call me for holiday festivities and they come to my house to have the coffee ceremony.”

But she’s still angry. She relentlessly reminds her parents of their decision and her disappointment in them. They tell her to let the past be in the past.

Things for Enana seem to be shifting since she became involved with TESFA. She told me her relationship with her husband is better. She said she’s now able to articulate her needs and desires – and negotiate with him what she thinks is best for herself and her family. She told me that her husband now helps around the house, too.

Enana credits the changes to TESFA. She’s part of a group of girls learning about sexual and reproductive health and how to effectively communicate with their husbands and others.

Perhaps one of the most significant changes TESFA staff has witnessed is that girls’ self-confidence is off the charts. They attribute this not only to the “life skills” training girls receive, but also to the mere fact that they’re included in a program that’s highly regarded in their communities. In the process, others are seeing young wives differently. They’re valued. Respected.

It’s unclear whether these shifts will last over time, as the girls grow into women. But for Enana, at the very least she may now have more say over her life path and the ability to make it happen.

“TESFA project has brought back the years I lost in oppression,” she told me. “It’s a good feeling.”

To learn more about ICRW’s Turning Point Campaign and help change the course for adolescent girls worldwide, visit ICRW’s Turning Point Campaign page.

Originally published on the Huffington Post Impact Blog on May 29, 2013.