Zelalem Belay, 70, is a respected Community Elder and member of the Community Conversation Group against Child Marriage in the Bandani Kebele (neighbourhood) of the Dangla Woreda (district) in Amhara, Ethiopia.
He stands in front of the gathered crowd and speaks with absolute humility and sincerity as he discusses his personal regrets over marrying his daughters when they were children: “At my age I have to tell the truth. Why hide when I can stand here and tell the truth for the betterment of my community,” Zelalem says.
“At first I opposed the change in culture away from chid marriage. I was resisting what the role of the poor girls could be. What options do poor children have? I thought. But I have since become convinced child marriage is not right. I have changed my mind. By supporting poor girls with economic incentives so they can continue their education, there is a different future for them and for their families”, explains Zelalem.
“I was married at 18, to a ten year old girl, but she kept running back to her family. She wanted no physical attachment to me. So three months later I had a second marriage to a 15 year old – it was easy to arrange quickly as my father was wealthy. My first wife, her parents sent her back to school and she married again a few years later.”
Zelalem continues: “So you see, in my former life, I had good assets, with family land and property, but then we did not see education as important. But now, those who are educated, they have a higher position than those with just land. A district judge, a school principle – they educate their children so that they have a position in society, they dress well.
Zelalem’s gaze is firm, his voice unwavering as he explains the impact on one of his children: “One daughter, I married her at 15, she gave birth immediately but she is now divorced. I sent her back to school. But she did not perform well. Her life was disturbed and miserable.
“So I strongly advise against child marriage. It is a bad experience for the boy and the girl. If there is a young girl and older man, she will not be responsible for the house and he will always be out spending his money on other women.”
The day before, a neighbour had come to consult Zelalem over marrying his 11 year old daughter. Zelalem explains: “I told him the law and that the marriage may not work out. That he will have lost property in agreeing to a marriage that does not last – divorce when people marry as children is common. I told him his daughter will probably run away. If she runs away to the city she could end up as a sex worker, trying to support herself. Many end up in cities working in local bars. They have nothing to fall back on.
“My life experience tells me that if you marry with an equal age and love each other – when it is a choice – and you share household responsibilities equally, then the marriage will prosper. They can run a business together, the husband can source raw materials and the wife can use them to make local beer to sell. It is a better life.
“I dream to get back to be like a child, and to live such a life.”