Out of the Shadows: Child Marriage in Ethiopia

Article Date

02 October 2012

Article Author

By Gillian Gaynair

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]
This is the third 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 – It’s the first day of Timkat, a three-day Ethiopian Orthodox Christian celebration of Jesus’s baptism, and Zabshwork is buzzing about between her two businesses, selling shoes, soap and salt in one; beer, bread and tea in the other.

Her store and bar sit on a bend of the main road that cuts through her high mountain village, where the air is minty with eucalyptus. Zabshwork pours Tella, the local beer, into fat, slightly rusted tin cans for two customers. She serves tea in tiny clear glasses to others. Then she whizzes into a room behind the bar to knead teff dough for injera, Ethiopia’s traditional bread, before popping outside to serve lunch to her husband and a couple of his friends.

She moves with purpose and poise. “Holidays are good business days,” Zabshwork, who appears much older than her 20 years, says through an interpreter. “That’s when I get the most customers.”

In the last year, Zabshwork has honed her business acumen and found inspiration – personally and entrepreneurially – through her involvement in an International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and CARE-Ethiopia program for young married girls like her.

Called TESFA, which means “hope,” the program takes place in the Amhara region, which has the highest rate of child marriage in Ethiopia. It is also one of the few efforts globally that focuses on married adolescent girls. It targets 5,000 child brides – 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. ICRW is testing whether combining health and economic empowerment programming has a greater impact on girls’ lives than providing such information separately.

Critically, TESFA also aims to empower child brides to advocate for themselves – within the confines of a life they did not choose. By doing so, these girls are likely to 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.

In Zabshwork’s village, ICRW and CARE-Ethiopia are striving to equip married girls with the skills, confidence and direction that can perhaps give them a chance out of poverty. Despite laws against early marriage, there are hundreds of thousands of child brides in Amhara who are married in often secret ceremonies to men eight years or older.

“In very poor and rural settings like Amhara, there are not viable alternatives to marriage for girls, such as a thriving labor market where young women can hope to earn a living,” says Ann Warner, an ICRW senior gender and youth specialist. “So, parents often choose marriage as the safest bet for their daughter’s future.”

Most child brides drop out of school, and without an education, Warner says girls are less prepared to care for themselves and their children and less equipped to earn, save and invest money. “Ultimately, they become stuck in an inter-generational cycle of poverty.”

Savings & loan 101

The drive to Zabshwork’s village follows a winding road flanked by eucalyptus trees, which dot the Amhara landscape.

The district in which she lives is one of two where TESFA is taking place. Zabshwork belongs to an arm of program that brings married girls together to contribute pennies to a shared pot. They then make small loans to each other to start income-generating activities.

Zabshwork’s savings group has 14 members and at every gathering – they meet twice monthly – each girl contributes 2.50 Ethiopian birr or about 14 cents. They loan money only after everyone agrees, and a member must co-sign with the borrower for the loan. The borrower then has to pay the money back at 3 percent interest within three months.

Some girls borrowed money from their husbands or relatives to get started and have since repaid that original loan. Across the 88 savings groups in TESFA, the most common activities girls engage in include selling eggs, raising poultry, petty trade, selling vegetables and agricultural work.

Before participating in TESFA, “No one used to lend us money because we’re young and they don’t think we’re trustworthy,” says Zabshwork, whose savings group sells chili peppers and powdered beans..

The girls say that learning how to save, invest and earn money has boosted their confidence – and they notice that others are starting to believe in them, too. Being a part of the program also has given these married girls a chance to socialize with their friends and be involved in their community. That’s a big shift. Worldwide, child brides often are isolated at home, overburdened with household chores and caring for their husbands, children and in-laws.

Since participating in TESFA, many girls say they now have the courage to speak up if they want to go somewhere. They debate with their husbands. Ask questions. Make suggestions. And they say their husbands respect and trust them more – especially with money.

These young wives who were once invisible to others are slowly being seen as valuable and worthy of recognition.

Profits for life

That’s true for Zabshwork, too.

As a member of a TESFA savings group, she borrowed 500 Ethiopian birr – about $27 – to increase her bar’s selection of beer, liquor and soda. Since paying back the loan to the group and beefing up her inventory, Zabshwork says the bar has been making a decent profit. It’s the only establishment of its kind in the general vicinity and attracts neighbors as well as travelers on the main road leading to eastern Ethiopia. And now things are looking even better: Zabshwork’s village recently got electricity, which means the bar can stay open past its former 7 p.m. closing time. That also means more business.

But Zabshwork says what she’s learned from TESFA goes beyond better managing her businesses. “The thing that made a difference in my life is the communication,” she says. “How I talk to my husband and in-laws …I also learned you could save money, even if you don’t have a lot.”

She and her husband, Kefyalew – who is around 30 – have been married for about five years. Zabshwork says she learned 10 days before her wedding that her parents had arranged for her to marry.

She thought about running away. Then she thought about telling her school principal. But with the wedding just days away, Zabshwork says she felt it was too late to try to stop it.

Early marriage causes a jolting transition from being a child to shouldering adult responsibilities. Most girls interviewed for this series described daily routines of rising early, fetching water and firewood, cooking, cleaning, and, if they are mothers, minding a child. They also described painful, unwanted first sexual encounters with their husbands; many didn’t understand what was happening.

Zabshwork says she remembers struggling to juggle her household tasks when she first wed, and often forgetting what needed to be done. “When you’re living with your parents, they would remind you of your house chores,” she says.

These days, Zabshwork seems to have found her groove. She and Kefyalew don’t plan to have children for a few more years; she’s taking birth control. For now, she manages the shop and bar, and he helps with the latter. Since being involved in TESFA, she says her husband consults her and they make decisions together. “I’m very happy about that.”

So is Kefyalew: “She brings good ideas to our business.”

And like an entrepreneur, Zabshwork is looking ahead. Her dreamis to add a 10-room hotel to the bar and serve three meals daily. And one day, she wants to supply the type of products her shop carries – instead of going through someone else.

Gillian Gaynair is ICRW’s senior writer and editor.

Next story: Changing the Course

Read the previous stories in this series:
Week one: Innovative Program Gives Hope to Child Brides
Week two: The Birds and the Bees – and a Better Future

Watch the video: Voices from Ethiopia