Article Date

13 June 2011

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

After so many visits here, I should no longer by surprised by how young the girls are, but I always am. The girls –  and so many of them really are just girls –  met with me to share their experiences with our project, which aims to improve the social, economic and health status of more than 5,000 recently-married girls in the Amhara region of Ethiopia.

Life is incredibly tough for young girls in this area, where more than half of them were married before the age of 15.  Nearly all of the unions were arranged by family members; the girls had little or no say in them. Their lives are essentially dictated by others who confine them to very narrow roles. And recent survey statistics for the region show that one in seven girls in Amhara, almost certainly an undercount, was raped – many by their husbands before or after their marriage. These girls are the least powerful person in their households. They’re often unable to leave their homes without permission. At least half of them will be subjected to female genital cutting, and many will be beaten by their husbands or in-laws. Changing the social norms that underlie these statistics is a difficult process, but that is the task that  CARE-Ethiopia, the Nike Foundation and ICRW have taken on in this area.

I last saw many of these girls almost six months ago, when they were recruited into the program, and I was amazed to witness how much they had changed over such a short period of time. While they were clearly more knowledgeable about health issues and had made great strides in learning about saving and earning money, the most noticeable change was visual. I recognized many of their faces from earlier visits, but the girls before me had transformed. Once shy and quiet, they now were confident and outspoken. They even carried themselves differently. The girls told us that since joining the project, their families and communities seemed to view them more respectfully; it’s as if they were finally visible. They told us they now felt they could attend and speak out at community meetings, and that the negotiation skills the project taught had improved their relationships with their husbands and in-laws. So many of them now had plans for the future – none of which I had heard expressed on my earlier visits.

Married girls in the Amhara region of Ethiopia.

These girls’ successes, coupled with the community’s continued involvement in the project, have had broader impacts as well: Thirty-five early marriages were halted by community groups over the past six months, including those of three young girls I met on my recent trip. Each is still attending school and intends to stay that way. Other participants told us that they planned to return to school and had successfully convinced their husbands and in-laws to let them do so.

It is easy to become overwhelmed by the challenges these girls face, but I can’t help but feel incredibly inspired by them. Despite the hardships they deal with on a daily basis, these girls don’t want a hand-out or charity. All they want is a chance, an opportunity to improve their own lives and those of their children. These girls are the reasons we at ICRW do what we do, and I’m determined to make sure our project continues to make a difference in their lives as well as all the other girls just waiting to be given an opportunity to succeed.

Read Edmeades earlier blog from Ethiopia and Robin Hayes’s blog about the same project.