|This is the first 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 – Kasanesh 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., Kasanesh 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 Kasanesh’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 Kasanesh 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, Kasanesh 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. Most don’t learn they’re getting married until a week or days before the ceremony. Many remain isolated in remote villages, unable to attend community gatherings or even church. Instead, their lives – at least their first few years of marriage – are often defined by household chores and tending to their husbands’ and in-laws’ needs.
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 married girls like Kasanesh, 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 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 documenting the causes and consequences of 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. This unprecedented attention is being driven by new groups such as Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, and individuals like photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair, who makes powerful images to educate the world about the lives of girls forced into marriage. 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 Kasanesh who are already married will not only better the lives of millions of girls worldwide – it will also better the world.
“Keeping unmarried girls out of wedlock and in school, as well as providing more information and resources to already married girls,has a ripple effect,” says Ann Warner, an ICRW senior gender and youth specialist. “Educated, informed and empowered girls will have a better chance to make the most of their lives, and to contribute productively to their families and communities. And that ultimately has a huge impact on major development priorities, such as improving global health, literacy and economic security, and alleviating hunger and gender-based violence.”
Childhood ends after vows
Forced marriage persists around the globe, from Nepal to Nicaragua and Yemen to Uganda. It is a complex tradition, one fueled significantly 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. 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 Kasanesh, 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. There are signs of this happening in Ethiopia: A national law requires consenting couples to be at least 18 years old to marry. Elementary school students learn about the law in their civics classes, as well as about the health and economic consequences of early marriage. The country’s health ministry has built clinics and deployed workers into villages to provide much-needed services and education, including about early marriage.
Such educational efforts are leading some families to consider alternatives to early marriage.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 Kasanesh who, for now, remains one of the invisible ones.
A young bride’s new life
Kasanesh 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 Kasanesh is filled with household chores – gathering firewood and water, caring for their 1-year-old daughter, cooking, sweeping.
Kasanesh is not yet participating in TESFA, but will start in December, along with nearly 480 other married girls.
She speaks almost in a whisper, her eyes downcast. A large cross hangs from her neck, and like many girls here, she wears a loose dark green dress to her calves. She is happiest, she says, when she’s able to be with other girls her age.
Kasanesh is Shiferaw’s second wife; his first marriage ended in divorce. Friends alerted Kasanesh that she was going to be married three days before the 8 p.m. ceremony. “I was not happy when I found out,” Kasanesh says. “I was more happy in school.”
On her wedding night, an uncle brought her 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, Kasanesh 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.
Kasanesh’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,” Kasanesh says. “I feel like I’ve lived more than my age.”
Gillian Gaynair is ICRW’s senior writer and editor.