Providing gynaecological services to Ethiopian women scarred by FGM/C

By Endale Engida

AYSSAITA, AFAR REGION, 24 November 2016 – Asiya’s marriage was meant to be a joyful occasion, but on her wedding night, this 18-year-old found only pain.

Like nearly all young girls in Ethiopia’s Afar Region, she had undergone Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) at a very young age and trying to consummate the marriage with her husband brought only pain and bleeding.

In the Afar region, a particularly severe form of FGM/C known as Type III or infibulation is practiced whereby the vaginal opening is partially sewn shut, condemning generations of women to pain.

Asiya’s husband, Burhan Helen, was determined to help his wife and he asked around and discovered that the hospital in their woreda (district) had recently set up a gynaecological unit specialized in opening up women who had been subjected to infibulation.

Female Genital Mutilation in Afar
“FGM should stop, I have seen the problem myself, I always struggle when I am on my period, my period doesn’t flow normally so it was very painful. I won’t cut my future daughter. I am very happy to have gone through surgery and I am thankful for the organization working on this.” – Asiya Ali, 18, undergone FGM and currently following up at Ayssaita primary hospital, Afar region, after her surgery. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Tadesse

FGM/C has long been outlawed in Ethiopia, but is still widespread in the country with an estimated 65 per cent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 (EDHS 2016) having been cut – down from 74 per cent in 2005 EDHA

However, those numbers mask regional variations. In regions like Afar and the Somali it can reach up to 90 per cent while other areas have a much lower prevalence due to different cultural norms in the diverse nation of Ethiopia.

In regions where it is practiced across eastern Africa and up into Egypt, it is believed FGM/C is necessary to ensure a woman stays a virgin before marriage, and many men say they would not marry a woman who hasn’t been cut.

In 2014, the Government of Ethiopia committed to ending the practice by 2025 and has been working on discouraging it through public information campaigns. Penalties for carrying it out range from three to ten years in prison.

For those like Asiya who have already undergone the procedure, the new gynaecological unit established in May 2016 at the Ayssaita Woreda hospital is a life saver.

Female Genital Mutilation in Afar
Dr. Hatse Abrha is a gynaecologist at Ayssaita primary hospital, Afar region. Dr. Hatse Abrha has been assisting girls and women with health complications due to FGM, a project under UNICEF Ethiopia. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Tadesse

Thanks to the funds from Foundation Espoir through the Luxembourg Committee for UNICEF, the hospital now employs Dr. Hatse Abreha, the only gynaecologist in the hospital.

The hospital, which serves a mostly pastoral population of 90,000, can now treat gynaecological and obstetric cases, including FGM/C reconstructions. By October 2016, the hospital was treating 200 FGM/C cases a month. In many cases, patients can be discharged the same day after the surgery.

Dr. Abreha diagnosed Asiya’s condition and also noted that in addition to pain during intercourse, she suffered discomfort and slow flow during menstruation. She and her husband were counselled about the procedure and then she received the deinfibulation surgery.

“I want to see these innocent girls and women no longer be victims of FGM/C, though these kind of interventions are only part of the solution and will not solve the root cause of the problem,” he said.

After a careful period of outpatient monitoring, Asiya was pronounced cured.

“We have special gratitude to Dr. Hatse Abreha for his friendly care and follow up,” she said during a follow up visit. “We are here to teach our community not to practice FGM/C on their girls and our own children will not be victims of FGM/C.”

 

UNICEF and WFP Regional Directors visit El Niño driven drought response in Ethiopia

Afar Region – Ethiopia Ms Leila Pakkala and Ms Valerie Guarnieri, UNICEF and WFP Regional Directors for Eastern and Central Africa, have visited the ongoing government-led drought response where UNICEF-WFP are closely collaborating. The drought is affecting six regions in Ethiopia, and 9.7 million people are in need of urgent food relief assistance including approximately 5.7 million children who are at risk from hunger, disease and lack of water as a result of the current El Niño driven drought.

In Afar Region, where an estimated 1.7 million people are affected by the drought, including 234,000 under-five children, the Regional Directors visited UNICEF/WFP/Government of Ethiopia supported programmes. These included the targeted supplementary feeding programme (TSFP) and an outreach site where one of Afar’s 20 Mobile Health and Nutrition Teams (MHNTs) provides preventive and curative health, nutrition and WASH services to a hard-to-reach community in Lubakda kebele.

Ms Leila Pakkala and Ms Valerie Guarnieri, UNICEF and WFP Regional Directors for Eastern and Central Africa in Ethiopia visit

The Mobile Health and Nutrition Team provides Outpatient Therapeutic Programme (OTP) and targeted supplementary feeding programme (TSFP) services to remote communities. The TSFP is integrated with MHNT services that address under five children and pregnant and lactating women with moderate acute malnutrition, and link them to TSFP when they are discharged from OTP. This solves the challenge in addressing the SAM–MAM continuum of care and preventing moderate acute malnourished children deteriorating into severe acute malnutrition.

The Directors also visited a multi-village water scheme for Afar pastoralist communities in Musle Kebele, Kore Woreda (district) which suffers from chronic water insecurity.

“Valerie and I are hugely impressed by the work of the WFP and UNICEF teams in Afar,” said UNICEF’s Pakkala.  “The quality of the work being done in such difficult circumstances – from the mobile health and nutrition teams, to WASH, protection, education and advocacy – is remarkable. We were also immensely impressed with the national level partnership between UNICEF and WFP, and our credibility with government and donors. The relationship and collaboration is a model for other countries to learn from and emulate.”

“Ethiopia is showing us that drought does not have to equal disaster,” said Valerie Guarnieri of WFP.  “We can clearly see the evidence here that a robust, government-led humanitarian response – supported by the international community – can and does save lives in a time of crisis.”

UNICEF and WFP continue to support the Government in responding to the current drought with a focus on the most vulnerable and hard to reach communities by using proven context specific solutions and approaches.

Ethiopia: Vital events registration launched

By Nikodimos Alemayehu and Marie Angeline Aquino

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia. August 2016 – Ethiopia launched throughout the country on 4 August 2016 a permanent, compulsory and universal registration and certification of vital events such as birth, death, marriage and divorce.

Vital events registration kicks off in Ethiopia
(L-R) Ms. Gillian Mellsop, UNICEF Representative to Ethiopia , H.E Ms Elsa Tesfaye, Director General of Vital Events Registration Agency (VERA), H.E Dr Mulatu Teshome, President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and H.E Mr Getachew Ambaye, Attorney General holds a symbolic certificate for birth registration. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Ayene

The inauguration ceremony took place in the presence of the Ethiopian President Dr Mulatu Teshome, UNICEF Representative Gillian Mellsop as well as representatives of other ministries and development partners.

“The Government of Ethiopia has given great emphasis to vital events registration across the country by putting the appropriate policies in place, establishing a system up to the lowest administrative level and deploying massive resources in this endeavor,” said Teshome at the ceremony. “I am confident that, with the collaboration and commitment of all stakeholders, we will succeed in the operationalization of the system, just like we have succeeded in other development sectors in the country.”

Mellsop underscored in her address the importance of the registry in protecting children and combatting child trafficking.

‘’With no proof of age and identity, Ethiopian children become a more attractive ‘commodity’ to a child trafficker, and will not even have the minimal protection that a birth certificate provides against early marriage, child labour, or detention and prosecution of the child as an adult.”

Ethiopia ranks among the lowest in sub-Saharan countries on birth registration with less than 10 per cent of children under the age of 5 with their births registered.

The issue is especially urgent because 48 per cent of the 92 million-strong population is under the age of 18 – 90 per cent of whom are unregistered. The Government has committed itself to reaching at least 50 per cent of children with registration and certification services over the next two years.

UNICEF’s support to Ethiopia’s national civil registration is based on a recognition that birth registration is an important element of ensuring the rights and protection of children.

For children, being registered at birth is key to other rights such as access to basic social services, protection, nationality and later the full rights of citizenship, including the right to vote. Moreover, not only is vital events registration essential for compiling statistics that are required to develop policies and implement social services, it is also, as Mellsop points out, “a pre-requisite in measuring equity; for monitoring trends such as child mortality, maternal health and gender equality.”

Inaugural ceremony of National Vital Events Registration in SNNPR capital Hawassa
One-month child Samrawit at a birth registration centre in Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR) capital Hawassa August 6, 2016. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Ayene

UNICEF has supported the Government in putting in place a decentralized registration and certification system, which is informed by a legislative framework promulgated in August 2012.

UNICEF is a catalyst in creating this new system with support that includes the reform of the legislative framework, the development of a national strategy and its implementation across the country.

An important element of the Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) system is its interoperability with the health sector. On this aspect, UNICEF has worked in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Health in its efforts to formalize the interoperability, culminating in the signing of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two ministries.

The important of involving the Health Ministry is because it already has its own well organized and decentralized network stretching across the country. This arrangement allows the health facilities found in nearly every community to manage notifications of births and deaths.

The actual registration and certification of all vital events started on 6 August 2016 at the lowest administrative level of the kebele (sub-district).

With Ethiopia’s new conventional vital events registration system in place, there are better opportunities for accelerating vital events registration in Ethiopia, and realizing one of the fundamental rights of children – the right to be registered upon birth.

EU’s Satellite images provide life saving water to drought affected communities in Ethiopia

By Samuel Godfrey

An ongoing UNICEF supported borehole drill in Musle Kebele of Kore Woreda.
An ongoing UNICEF supported borehole drill in Musle Kebele of Kore Woreda. The borehole drilling site was identified through combined remote sensing technology with conventional methodologies (hydrogeology and geophysics). © UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Ayene

Ethiopia is in the middle of an El Nino induced drought which has left 5.8 million people across the country without access to adequate water. More than 220 districts of Ethiopia are facing water related emergencies that arise due to either a lack of availability or quality of water.

As the WASH cluster lead, UNICEF supports the Government of Ethiopia and other partners in the rehabilitation, maintenance and construction of new water supply systems, provision of water purification and treatment chemicals, scaling up of water trucking activities, and provision of sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools. In addition, UNICEF is exploring innovative ways to use satellites to detect deep groundwater for large scale, multiple-village water supply systems. As part of the overall drought emergency response, UNICEF supports programmes in child protection, education, health and nutrition.

Groundwater, compared to rivers/lakes or other surface water, supplies 80 percent of all drinking water in Ethiopia. Water from the groundwater aquifers supports emergency water supply, urban water supply and livestock watering. With limited rains, many of these shallow groundwater wells have run dry and these communities rely on expensive commercial trucks to haul in water.

The more sustainable groundwater is located at extremely deep depths. In some cases, more than 300 metres below the ground which is the equivalent in height of the Empire State Building. To locate water that deep and then to drill and extract it is a major challenge.

Satellite image of Afar Elidar woreda Potential drilling sites
Satellite image of Afar Elidar woreda potential drilling sites

To tackle this problem, the European Union and UNICEF have selected 9 of the worst affected districts across Ethiopia to use ‘satellite’ technology to locate groundwater. The EU Joint Research Centre (JRC) are providing their expertise by availing ‘no cost’ satellite images which depict the physical and topographical characteristics of the districts from satellites 100s of KM in the sky. These are then combined by UNICEF hydrogeology experts to locate appropriate sites for the drilling of essential deepwells for drought affected communities.

Results to date are extremely encouraging that it should be expanded to a larger scale of the country. On a recent visit to a well sited using this technique in Afar, the UNICEF Executive Director, Anthony Lake said “This approach is very cost-effective, compared to delivering water by truck. Indeed, every permanent well costs the equivalent of only three deliveries of water by truck.”

Mr. Lake added “This is only the beginning. With our partners in the European Union and the Government of Ethiopia we are expanding this effort through out the country, distributing water to villages, schools, health centres and cattle troughs.”

UNICEF would like to express its thanks to the European Union Delegation and the EU-JRC, for their establishment of a remote sensing partnership with UNICEF and providing the un-reserved support so far, which we believe to be strengthen and extended further in the future.

Innovative approaches like these are already showing results for boys and girls in the hard to reach areas of Ethiopia.

Dr. Samuel Godfrey is Chief of WASH for UNICEF Ethiopia, and has a PhD and MSc in Civil Engineering and Water and Waste Engineering.

Ethiopia: Government and Humanitarian partners scale up to meet additional immediate relief needs of El Niño-driven crisis

An additional US$164million urgently needed to address increased food
and non-food needs for the remainder of the year

Temporary emergency rub hall tent built by UNICEF for drought affected people in Afar National Regional State, Adaytu woreda (district), Ethiopia.
Temporary emergency rub hall tent set up by UNICEF for drought affected people in Afar National Regional State, Adaytu woreda (district), Ethiopia. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Tesfaye

Addis Ababa, 13 October 2015: The Government of Ethiopia announced yesterday, during a meeting with UN agencies, NGOs, and Donor representatives, that the number of people in need of relief assistance in Ethiopia due to El Niño phenomenon had increased to 8.2 million. An inter-agency assessment conducted last month and led by the government identified an additional 3.6 million people in need of food assistance (from 4.55 million in August) as well as 300,000 children in need of specialized nutritious food and a projected 48,000 more children under five suffering from severe malnutrition.

An addendum to the joint-Government and humanitarian partners- Humanitarian Requirements Document (HRD) mid-year review was signed to officialise the increase in humanitarian needs. The National Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Committee (NDPPC), the high level national advisory body overseeing the Government response, further requested the government lead a multi-sector, multi-agency annual meher assessment in October (rather than November). This will enable the Government and partners to expedite planning and assistance provision for 2016.

His Excellency Mr Mitiku Kassa, NDPPC Secretary, explained during the meeting yesterday that the Government committed some 4 billion Ethiopian Birr (US$192 million), to address emergency food and non-food needs as a result of failed spring belg and poor summer kiremt rains caused by the climatic phenomenon known as El Niño.

“The El Niño conditions have brought Ethiopia a great challenge, but the Government and Regional States are ready to meet the needs of the people alongside partners in the international community,” said Mr Kassa. He further stated that the Government would continue to allocate resources as necessary to meet the needs of the Ethiopian people.

“The challenge we have before us is incredibly serious, and it will take the collective effort of the entire international community to support the Government in preventing the worst effects of El Niño now and well into next year,” said Mr John Aylieff, Acting Humanitarian Coordinator and Country Director for the UN’s World Food Programme.

Abahina Humed’s arm measurement shows that the child is acutely malnourished. He is taking treatment at Gewane Health Center, Afar region, Ethiopia.
Abahina Humed’s arm measurement shows that he is acutely malnourished. He is taking treatment at Gewane Health Center, Afar region, Ethiopia. © UNICEF Ethiopia/ 2015/Tesfaye

Affected areas include southern Tigray, eastern Amhara, Afar, and Siti zone of Somali region, eastern SNNP, East and West Hararge, Arsi and West Arsi, and lower Bale zones of Oromia. Water and pasture shortages decreased livestock production and caused livestock deaths in pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities.

The number of woredas (districts) prioritized for nutrition interventions doubled from 97 in July to 142 in September, and the number of severely malnourished children requiring therapeutic feeding in August reached 43,000 children. This is higher than any month of the 2011 Horn of Africa crisis.

“Donors have been generous,” said Mr Paul Handley, OCHA’s Head of Office, “but if we are to meet the significant needs before us today, and more in the months ahead, we need far more support. We count on that generosity to continue,” he said.

The Mid-Year Review of Ethiopia’s Humanitarian Requirements Document (HRD), issued on 18 August 2015, listed $432 million in funding requirements with contributions totalling $258 million (or, 55 per cent funding). The September rapid assessment conducted at the end of September highlighted increases in humanitarian need across several life-saving sectors, most notably food assistance, targeted supplementary food (TSF), therapeutic nutrition, emergency water interventions, and agriculture and livelihoods. Factoring in the previous shortfalls with adjusted needs, the 2015 humanitarian requirements were adjusted to $596.4 million, leaving the HRD funded at 43 per cent.

The on-going effects of the El Niño may further affect the weather patterns this autumn, with Ethiopia’s National Meteorological Agency (NMA) predicting strong rains along the Omo, Shabelle, and Awash rivers. This may impact harvests in some areas and cause flooding during the last quarter of the year.

In addition to food and nutrition needs, Ethiopia’s Humanitarian Requirements Document outlines emergency requirements in the health, WASH, agriculture and education sectors. Most sectors saw the figures of those in need increase.

The Ethiopia Humanitarian Country Team again calls on all partners to work closely together to address emergency needs whilst safeguarding development gains.

Three weeks ago the Ethiopia Humanitarian Country Team also released a forward-looking document (prepared in consultation with Government) called ‘Ethiopia Slow onset natural disaster: El Niño Driven Emergency’, available to download here.

Girls’ Empowerment Race in Samara to end Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C)

Children race held on the event Girl's Empowerment Regional race
Start of the Children race held as part of Girl’s Empowerment communication campaign in Gonder, Amhara region, Ethiopia © UNICEF Ethiopia 2015/Tesfaye

Addis Ababa, Samara, 1 October 2015 – UNICEF Ethiopia, in partnership with the Afar Bureau of Women Children and Youth Affairs (BoWCYA), the Afar Sport Commission and the Great Ethiopian Run, is organising a mass participation 5 km race in Samara on Sunday 4 October 2015, to promote Girls’ Empowerment. The theme of the run in Samara is “Ending Female Genital Mutilation/ Cutting.”

Despite a steady reduction in Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting (FGM/C) nationally over the past decade, most recent official data from the 2011 Welfare and Monitoring Survey indicates that one in every four girls (23 per cent) is subjected to the practice. In the Afar Region, there has also been a steady decline, however, still an alarming 60 per cent of girls under the age of 14 years are subjected to female genital mutilation/cutting, placing the region second after Somali.[i]

In Afar, girls are subjected to an extreme form of the practice – infibulation – which involves total cutting of the genitalia followed by stitching. This practice usually happens when girls are between seven and nine years old, but in some districts in Afar this practice even occurs when girl babies are only a few days old. 

The Government, recognising that the abandonment of female genital mutilation requires a human-rights based approach and coordinated joint action by all actors, has adopted a National Strategy and Action Plan on Harmful Traditional Practices against Women and Children (2013) and established a National Alliance to End Child Marriage and FGM/C.

The Government of Afar with UNICEF and other partners is implementing interventions to address FGM/C around 3 pillars: prevention, protection and provision of services. Regarding prevention, girls’ empowerment programmes are underway through girls clubs, incentives to keep girls in school and social mobilisation activities, including this race. In addition, religious leaders and communities are working together in social mobilisation initiatives through community conversations and public declarations on the abandonment of the practice coupled with health extension workers’ awareness-raising efforts with communities on the negative health impact of the practice. Police, judges and prosecutors are being trained and specialised police units have been established to better respond to cases of FGM/C and to provide protection and child-friendly justice to girls. Health practitioners are increasingly providing services to girls who are suffering from complications resulting from FGM/C.

Through the ‘UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: Accelerating Change’,  UNFPA and UNICEF support the Government of Ethiopia and other partners such as the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA) and Rohi Weddu to strengthen legislation outlawing the practice and to carry out activities enabling communities to make a coordinated and collective choice to abandon FGM/C.

FGM victim Ten year old Sadiye Abubakar in Mille, Afar, Ethiopia
Ten year old Sadiye Abubakar, admitted to Barbara May Hospital in Mille, Afar with her mother Sofya, unable to pass urine for more or less a month. ©Ethiopia/2013/Colville-Ebeling

“FGM/C is a violation of a girl’s right to health, well-being and self-determination,” says Gillian Mellsop, UNICEF Representative to Ethiopia. “FGM/C may cause severe pain and can result in prolonged bleeding, infection, infertility and even death. FGM/C is also harmful to new-borns due to adverse obstetric outcomes, leading to perinatal deaths.  The challenge now is to let girls and women, boys and men speak out loudly and clearly and announce they want this harmful practice abandoned,” she added.

A total of 2000 adults and 500 children are expected to participate in the mass mobilisation race, while over 5000 thousand spectators are expected to attend the community outreach programme. In addition, a photo and art exhibition, which is open to the public, and a media roundtable discussion will take place on the eve of the race. 

The events will be attended by high-level government dignitaries, representatives from the UN, NGOs, CSOs and members of the media. In addition, Thomas Gobena also known as “Tommy T”, international bass player for Gogol Bordello Band and who will be appointed as a National Ambassador to UNICEF Ethiopia this month will attend the activities in Samara. Other renowned artists and sport personalities will also attend the event to support the messaging around Girls’ Empowerment.

Runaway Child Bride on a New Beginning

By Bethlehem Kiros

Girls socialize in their dorm rooms at the Semera Girl’s Boarding School
Girls socialize in their dorm rooms at the Semera Girl’s Boarding School, a school that serves as a safe haven for many girls that escape their home villages after being forced to marry at a young age, in Semera, Afar Region, Ethiopia, 8 January 2015. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Bindra

AFAR Region, 8 January 2015 – At the Semera Girls’ Boarding School, Zahara Abdu is granted a new lease on life. Three years ago, at the age of 13, she was forced to marry a man who is decades older than her. “I was his third wife, and he has children that are older than me,” says Zahara. Refusing to take others’ choice for her life, she chose to flee and, fortunately wound up at the boarding school where she is now attending the 7th grade.

Next to the Amhara region, Afar has the highest rate of child marriage in Ethiopia. One of the reasons for this is the availability of few schools especially after finishing the Alternative Basic Education (ABE) which runs from grade 1-4 in their locality which limits girls’ option and directly justifies early marriage as the only viable. This fact is well entwined with an aged Afari tradition known as absuma which entitles a man full right to marry his cousin, specifically the daughter of his paternal aunt. Zahara was promised to several cousins already, in the name of absuma, but none of them took advantage of this traditional practice. “They are all educated which is probably why they didn’t demand to marry me,’’ explains Zahara.

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures

However, this did not stop Zahara’s father from finding her another man. She was not aware of the arrangement until the last minute and was attending 4th grade in her local ABE. When she found out, she tried to reason with her father who only turned a deaf ear to her plea. Distraught and out of options, Zahara followed her instincts and ran away at the night of her wedding. She sought refuge among her friends where she learned about the possibility of escaping to the Semera Boarding School. “There are three girls in my neighborhood who go to the school and they told me that the administration welcomes girls who are in a situation like mine,’’ she recounts. “They also promised to take me with them when their school break ends.’’

After twenty-seven days of hiding, her family found her in one of her friend’s house and dragged her back to her husband’s village, where his other two wives and children also live. Regarding what happened next, she says, “I knew what would await me, so I ran away again that very night.’’ To minimize the risk of being caught again, this time, she chose to stay out in the wilderness, surviving on the food and water her friends brought her. In the meantime, her friends were secretly raising money from other girls in the village for her trip to Semera, the capital of the region. Zahara recalls that her older sisters, who were both married at the time, were also part of the plan of her escape.

A Safe Haven

Zahara Abdu, 17, poses for a photo in her dorm at the UNICEF-supported Semera Girl’s Boarding School
Zahara Abdu, 17, poses for a photo in her dorm at the UNICEF-supported Semera Girl’s Boarding School, a school that serves as a safe haven for many girls that escape their home villages after being forced to marry at a young age, in Semera, Afar Region, Ethiopia, 8 January 2015. Zahara escaped from her village after her forced Absuma marriage to her cousin. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Bindra

After quite an ordeal of sleeping in the open desert, Zahara joined her friends on their trip back to school. The school administration referred her case to the regional Bureau of Women, Children and Youth Affairs (BoWCYA) and a decision was reached immediately to admit her to the school. Zahara is among the several girls in Semera Boarding School who have run away from their coerced marriages, often to men that are significantly older than them. In order to make education accessible to orphan or vulnerable girls from remote pastoralist communities, the school was built in 2009 by the regional government with the support of UNICEF. It currently provides education from grades 5 through 8 and mainly enrolls graduates of ABE, which is the most common form of education in pastoralist communities of Ethiopia.

Zahara says that she went to the extent of defying her father’s will and putting herself through considerable hardship during her escape, because it was simply unthinkable for her to forgo her education. “I know my potential, and I can’t let anyone ruin the future which I believe I can have,’’ she declares. She adds that the school has become an ideal place for her to tap into that potential as she can focus entirely on her studies without worrying about marriage or household responsibilities. ‘’All we have to do here is maintain our personal hygiene and clean our rooms, which leaves us with ample time for our school work,’’ she explains. Consequently, Zahara managed to complete the 5th and 6th grades at the top of her class and hopes to maintain this status for the years to come.

Facing Social Denigration

Girls play at the Semera Girl’s Boarding School
Girls play at the Semera Girl’s Boarding School, a school that serves as a safe haven for many girls that escape their home villages after being forced to marry at a young age, in Semera, Afar Region, Ethiopia, 8 January 2015. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Bindra

In the last two and half years, Zahara visited her family twice, during her school breaks, and her relationship with them is now restored. On her first visit, she was accompanied by a BoWCYA representative who explained to her father about the importance of letting her go to school while gently laying out the legal repercussions for arranging underage marriage. “In the presence of the BoWCYA representative, my father gave his word that he will not force me to go back to my so-called husband,’’ states Zahara. Though she is safe, she fears that her younger sister who recently turned 13 might be given away soon. “My sister is really worried, so if it comes to that, I guess I’ll have to notify the authorities since my family does not listen to me,’’ she says with frustration. According to her, their society generally considers girls in her position – who defy social norms for the sake of education – as bad influences on other girls. “Uneducated people like my father just don’t see the worth of a girl’s education,’’ she complains. ‘’They belittle us saying that the reason we insist on going to school is to have the freedom to be with boys.’’

Zahara strongly believes that the only way she and her friends can gain the respect of their families and communities is if they prove themselves as successful adults. “I think if we finish school, get jobs and start giving back to them, they’ll start to recognize that we have something valuable to offer, besides giving birth to children,’’ she concludes.