Kola Tembein District, Tigray Region, Ethiopia — Earlier this year, Haderu Gebray, 15, and her parents were arrested for planning her wedding. Child marriage is illegal in Ethiopia yet her father, who works in government, planned to wed her to an older man she had never met.
Her plight hit the media headlines instantly. All it took to create a huge public outcry on her behalf was a post on Facebook from a young man in her area.
But the entire experience has left Haderu shaken.
What made her intended marriage ironic is that she lives in a district where there is a strong movement against child marriage, with a high level of awareness that it is a harmful practice, and of the legal consequences.
Quick action and arrests
Haderu had never set eyes on her would-be husband. "All the arrangements were made between my parents and that of my future husband," she says.
The wedding preparations were in full swing when the police got wind of it. They arrested Haderu's parents, her would-be husband and his parents. Haderu was not spared either. She was placed in jail for 'protection purposes', as she puts it, and together with her parents was released on bail a short while later. They agreed to cancel the wedding.
"At the time I was not happy that the marriage was [cancelled] as so much effort and expense was [spent] by my parents in organizing the wedding," she says. She had resigned herself to her fate and planned to continue her education while married. However, in instances of child marriage the girl typically drops out of school and does not complete her education.
Global programme to end child marriage
The Joint UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage is being implemented in Kolla Tembein District, as well as other districts. In Kolla Tembein, child marriage custom is a deeply-rooted custom that affects even government employees like Haderu's father, despite the government's aim to end the practice.
Parents such as Haderu's often worry that their daughters may engage in premarital sex and 'smear' their family's honour by losing their virginity prior to marriage. Minors like Haderu pay the price for this.
In Ethiopia, the minimum legal of marriage is 18 years. Yet the median age at first marriage is 17.1 years, according to the Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey (2016). The government has embarked on a campaign to eliminate child marriage, among other harmful practices, by 2025.
Child marriage on the decline
The Joint Global Programme is being implemented in three districts in the Tigray Region, where child marriage is practiced widely, including Kola Tembein District. This practice leaves girls vulnerable to abuse and health problems, including potentially fatal complications of pregnancy.
Thanks to the commitment of the Regional Government of Tigray and efforts made with the support of the Global Programme, child marriage is on the decline. Community structures at grassroots level, including religious organizations and civil society organizations, take the lion's share of the credit.
When couples seek to marry at Guya Mariam church, Priest Gebreegziabher Tiku asks them to produce documents proving that they are not underage. He also preaches to his flock about the consequences of child marriage and other harmful practices.
"We are seeing very good results as far as warding off child marriage is concerned," he says.
The Women Development Group conducts community mapping exercises, which are stepped up in months prior to popular wedding seasons. The members keep track of every girl in the community, their marriage status and whether or not they are still in school. They report this information to the District Women's Affairs Office.
"This has helped us to prevent the marriage of underage girls," says Leteselas Berhe, leader of a Women Development Group in the Guya locality of the Kola Tembein District. "We have brought cases of violators to the attention of law enforcement bodies, one of which was the case of Haderu."
Some families reverse their decision when they realise that the Women Development Group is hot on their trails. But cases such as Haderu's are usually handled by a Marriage Annulment Committee set up at the local level, and the perpetrators are subject to the justice system.
"We have registered good results in the fight against harmful practices, and promoting institutional delivery (at a health centre) and a savings culture among women," adds Ms. Berhe. Because girls who leave school are more likely to be married off early, and because many child brides are forced to drop out, the Women Development Groups also work closely with local schools.
Challenge of ending child marriage
The prevalence of child marriage in Ethiopia is 58 per cent for the age group 25-49 years, according to the Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey (2016). In pursuit of its ambitious vision of eliminating child marriage by 2025, the government is implementing a mix of interventions at different levels. This engages multiple partners and grassroots structures, including Women Development Groups, women's associations, civil society organizations (CSOs), faith-based organizations, and community leaders.
A multi-sectoral government structure, the Steering Committee in the fight against harmful practices, has been set up at locality and regional levels to strengthen community efforts in the fight against child marriage. The committee involves 13 different sectors, including health, education, and law enforcement bodies, according to Alemat Amare, Deputy Head of the Bureau of Women's Affairs, Tigray.
Community mapping has been conducted in the intervention districts to track which girls are married and those not yet married, as well as who is in school and those who are not, Ms. Amare says.
"We have achieved a lot but we can't say that we have zero incidences of child marriage," she says. Much remains to be done, especially as a number of districts in the region, including Kola Tembein, continue to grapple with the deep-rooted practice.
This academic year alone, a large number of girls have reportedly dropped out of school in the region, mostly for economic reasons yet the contribution of harmful practices such as child marriage cannot be ruled out.
To educate communities about the risks that go with exposing their daughters to early marriage, gender clubs have been established in schools across the region to provide peer-to-peer education on sexual and reproductive health (SRH), harmful practices and other related challenges. SRH services are provided free of charge at health institutions, and critical messages are relayed using mini media (sound systems set up to transmit educational messages to students through an edutainment approach) in schools.
While Haderu was unhappy about her personal situation being publicized on social media, she believes it was a good strategy for others to learn from. Currently in sixth grade, she is happy to be in school and wants to continue her education until she decides to marry.
- Abraham Gelaw