In rural Ethiopia, it’s considered ‘normal’ for girls to be married before age 18. In fact, 1 in 3 girls in the East African country are married as children.
To help end child marriage in Ethiopia, Plan International has been working with lawmakers, community leaders and teachers to spread awareness about the dangers of child marriage. We’re also working with youth through peer-to-peer groups that empower them to take action when their rights have been infringed upon or threatened.
For Yekaba,13, Plan International’s work in her community was the difference between a life as a child bride or a future of her own choosing. Through peer-to-peer groups and wider community support, she was emboldened to speak out against a wedding being planned for her.
The girl who refused marriage
Yekaba was just 12 years old when she found out her father, Desta, was planning to marry her off to a 20-year-old man she had never met or even seen before.
Yekaba knew she had the right to say ‘no’, so she confronted Desta, asking him why he wanted her married off to a man nearly twice her age.
“He replied that he couldn’t afford to send both of his daughters to school, so he’d decided I must get married,” says Yekaba, adding that she asked if he’d ever considered the health problems she’d face if she became pregnant.
“I told him I’d develop fistula if I fell pregnant because my body isn’t fully developed,” says Yekaba, who also reminded Desta of what happened to her cousin when she was married at age 12. “Her husband rejected her after 2 years complaining she wasn’t doing enough housework. She had a baby when she was just 14. She’s never been too school and the baby isn’t very healthy.”
“I told my father about all the problems child marriage would cause me and also him. I told him everything I’d learned at school from the peer-to-peer discussion group.”
It takes a community
Yekaba’s challenge to Desta’s decision was supported by the wider community who have been sensitized to the issue of child marriage, thanks in part to work done by Plan International.
When Yekaba told her friend, Woyzer, about the wedding, she wrote a note and put it in a box at school which enables children to report child marriages or any event that violates their rights. This note helped Yekaba’s school get involved in reasoning with her father to stop the marriage.
In addition, Muluwork, a local leader who is also a former child bride, stepped up and told Desta that if he continued with the wedding plans then he would be banned from working at the local church as a priest and be fined heavily.
A father’s new perspective
All these efforts combined eventually convinced Desta to cancel the wedding.
“I wanted to get my daughter married because I’m getting old and find it tiring doing all the work on my farm by myself. I wanted to have a man around the place who could help me with the work – and I’m also conscious that Yekaba needs someone to give her security in the future. I won’t be able to look after her forever,” says Desta.
“I didn’t know that it was all wrong.”
Desta says the main reason he decided to call off the wedding was because Yekaba insisted that she wanted to stay in school and continue her education for as long as possible. He also learned that the government was now enforcing laws against child marriage and he didn’t want to end up in prison.
“I want Yekaba to be a great woman one day and not want for anything. But I now realize that pushing her to marry at this young age wouldn’t have been right,” he says.
Now that Desta knows the truth about child marriage, he’s passing on his wisdom to other men in the community.
“My advice to other fathers?” don’t get your daughters married early. My two eldest daughters both had child marriages and they don’t have good lives. But it’s too late for me to change things for them. Now I just hope their children don’t get married too young.”
Time is running out for girls like Yekaba
In the time it took to read this story, 80 girls were forced into child marriage – that’s 1 girl every 3 seconds.
With each passing moment, progress that has been made for girls’ rights to say NO to child marriage is being undone due to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. We are now faced with the reality that more girls will become child brides as a direct result of the pandemic.
We must stop the clock and stop the setback so that girls can decide their own futures.