By Bethlehem Kiros
GOHA, AMHARA REGION- For Serkadis Hunachew, her wedding, instead of a happy, blissful day, was an utter source of anguish, an untimely and forced rite of passage. “I was crying when people were dancing and celebrating,’’ says the 13- year-old regarding her wedding ceremony that took place two years ago.
According to Serkadis, her tears were preceded by shock as she was completely unaware that she was about to be married until the very morning of the ceremony when they were dressing her for the occasion. To her, marriage meant tragedy as it would not only loot her of her childhood but also shatter her dream of finishing school and making something of herself. At first, she contemplated running away but later decided to stay in order to spare her parents the embarrassment. She says that the only comfort she had at the time was the possibility that the marriage could be annulled after the ceremony.
As the day advanced and guests flocked to their house, the celebration and dancing escalated but Serkadis’ gloomy mood did not change: a situation that annoyed her father. “He hit me because I couldn’t stop crying,’’ she recounts. When a wedding day ends, the custom is for the groom to take his bride at the back of a mule to his own parent’s house but Serkadis, still very upset, refused to ride with him. “I rode with another boy from my village all the way to Ambessame,’’ she explains. Ambessame is the nearest rural town to her village and the seat of the Dera woreda (district) administration.
Though the wedding officially renders her married, it was not expected of her to commence her wifely duties, as the arrangement was to keep her under the custody of her parents until she is considered fit to run her own home. Hence, after she spent five days with her husband’s family, sharing a bed with his sisters, she returned back to her village, Goha upon the request of her parents.
The Ethiopian constitution clearly stipulates that in all actions concerning children, the best interest of the child should always take precedence. Moreover, the government has ratified international conventions that stand for the protection of the rights of children and various governmental and non-governmental organizations are working to support the abandonment practices such as child marriage that are clearly against the best interest of children. Yet, Ethiopia remains to have one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. At the forefront, is the Amhara regional state where almost half of the female children are said to be married before they reach 18, although the regional government has adopted the federal family code that criminalizes marriage before the age of 18.
Poverty, which is the primary challenge of the region, is said to be one of the main driving factors for child marriage. Serkadis’ parents are also admittedly unable to provide for her due to their poor means of survival. “They told me that their main reason for marrying me off is their inability to send me to school anymore,’’ she says. When her parents say they cannot afford to send her to school, they are referring to the school materials, mainly notebooks that they are only expected to purchase a few times a year, (not school fees, as government schools are tuition free).
Second to the last of 13 children, Serkadis states that her family lives in extreme poverty that worsened after a large part of their land was apportioned among her brothers who have started their own families. “My parents have not bought clothes for me for a while and it is my teachers that even buy soap for me,’’ she says.
When she got back home after her honeymoon and they broke the news to her that she would not be going to school, her response was, “If I have to, I’ll move to the city, work as a house maid and earn my own income to go to school.” However, she might not need to go to that extent as one of her brothers, who recently heard about her marriage, invited her to live with him in Bahirdar city where she can go to school while helping him in his shop.
Serkadis is considering taking her brothers offer since her father has informed her that she will move in with her husband at the end of the year. Despite the continued pressure from her family, Serkadis persists with her decision to take no part in the arrangement. According to her, she is so detached to the whole idea that she did not even make an effort to know the name of her husband. “What good would it do for me to know his name? I don’t want anything to do with him,’’ she firmly states.
Due to the wedding and the ensuing arguments with her father, Serkadis had to quit school during the year of the wedding but she managed to repeat the 5th grade last year and is now at the 6th grade. Before her father pulls her out of school again, she is planning to go to her school headmaster and ask for her school transcript so that she can go to Bahirdar with her sister who recently came for a visit after many years. “My sister was very angry at my father for what he did so she told me that she will take me with her to Bahirdar if I get my report card this week,’’ she explains. Once in Bahirdar, Serkadis will then decide whether she will stay with her sister or brother.
Her only reservation is leaving her mother behind. “My mother has heart problems, and it is me who always looks after her and the house when she gets sick,’’ she says. “But if they are planning to send me to my husband soon, I might as well go to Bahirdar where I can have a better future.’’