“I could help my family be free from poverty if I was educated. Not if I am married.” Lakech, 13

By Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop

Lakech, 13 8th grade, wants to be a doctor when she grows up. Out of sheer poverty, her parents arranged her a marriage with a relatively wealthy family. Having heard of this arrangement, the community conversation groups approached her parents and
Lakech, 13, had her marriage cancelled as a result of reporting her parents to the Community Conversation Group in Bandani Kebele (neighbourhood), Amhara, Ethiopia. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Mersha

Lakech*, aged 13, is from a poor family in the Bandani Kebele (neighbourhood) of the Dangla Woreda (district) in Amhara, Ethiopia. Her father, 55, is frail from ill health and her mother, 45, supports the family on her own.

Although Lakech’s older sisters have been educated, times are now hard. Lakech’s mother had arranged for her to be married, to both benefit from a dowry and to avoid the additional costs of Lakech’s presence in the household.

“We sometimes do not have enough to eat. We do not even have clothing”, explains Lakech’s mother, “I was given this dress by Hebeste the Health Extension Worker. My girls are always asking me: Why do we not have clothing? Why do we not have soap? Life is hard.”

Lakech found out about the planned marriage from school friends. She explains the impact when she found out: “I was determined not to be married. I wanted to run away, to an urban area where I would look after myself. I planned to work as a housemaid and continue my schooling. I could help my family be free from poverty if I was educated. Not if I am married.”

Lakech reported the planned marriage to Girma Demlash, the facilitator of the Community Conversation Group which campaigns against child marriage.

“I felt distrust for my parents during that time. At first my parents were angry when I reported them, as they said they had no capacity to send me to school. But we have been offered help because I reported it. So I am no longer in fear of a planned marriage,” explains Lakech.

Shashe Gebre, 45, decided to arrange marriage to her daughter Lakech 13, 8th grade, because she couldn't afford to send her to school or provide her food in the house. But after having a conversation with the community conversation groups, she decid
The Mother of Lakech, 13, agreed to cancel her daughter’s planned marriage as a result of an intervention by the Community Conversation Group in Bandani Kebele (neighbourhood), Amhara, Ethiopia. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Mersha

Lakech’s mother was relieved when the marriage was cancelled. “The Community Conversation Group told me about the legal consequences. I have been supported by the community since. My friends are very happy that Lakech will not be married,” she says.

The family has been able to access a UNICEF supported Revolving Fund to prevent child marriage. So-called because when funding is paid back by beneficiaries it is reinvested into the next family who needs it, so it circulates within the community. Families can start a business, make money and send their girls to school. Plus the fund gives support for education materials including uniform and clothing.

Meseret Debalkie, Child Protection Officer, UNICEF Ethiopia, says of the fund: “For the wealthy family you just have to change attitudes. That is relatively easy. But for the poorer families, if you do not offer any other life options, what will they do? You have to give them alternatives.”

Atalele Abera, 35, is a member of the Women’s Development Group and of the Community Conversation Group. Atalele says of Lakech’s cancelled marriage:

“The girl’s family received 1,000 ETB ($47) as a gift from the husband’s family, but we made sure they gave it back. I am following up with Lakech. I didn’t trust the parents to stick to their decision to cancel. So I visited them four times in the aftermath and continue to collect information from the neighbourhood on whether the marriage plans have really stopped.”

Lakech, 13, and her Mother.
Lakech, 13, and her Mother. Lakech’s planned marriage was cancelled as a result of an intervention by the Community Conversation Group in Bandani Kebele (neighbourhood), Amhara, Ethiopia. © UNICEF/ESARO 2015/Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop

Lakech’s mother explains that she had ambiguous feelings over educating Lakech: “I was worried that I will lose my daughters if I educate them as there are no schools nearby. My eldest daughter went to school some miles away and we have lost contact with her. So I was worried that when we face a challenge due to poverty that my other girls will do the same thing – they will leave and find a life elsewhere.

“But now we have the fund to help us. We will get 5,300 ETB ($250), I will buy sheep. It will cost me around 900 ETB ($43) to by one sheep if she is pregnant, so then I will have two. I will prepare local whisky and the leftovers from that will feed the sheep.”

*Name changed to protect identity

Elders advise against child marriage in favour of education in Amhara

Ato Zelalem Belay, 70, influential community leader at Dangla Woreda, Badani Kebele, Amhara region.
Zelalem Belay, 70, Elder, speaks in front of Bandani Kebele’s Community Conversation Group against Child Marriage, Amhara, Ethiopia. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Mersha

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.”

Ato Zelalem Belay, 70, has 2 boys and 5 girls
Zelalem Belay, 70, Elder, a member of Bandani Kebele’s Community Conversation Group against Child Marriage, Amhara, Ethiopia. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Mersha

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.”

In Ethiopia, a partnership to improve nutrition

By Christine Nesbitt

A joint EU-UNICEF programme reaches rural communities in Ethiopia to address undernutrition among mothers and children through monitoring, treatment and guidance.


GEMECHIS, Ethiopia, 24 August 2015 – Early in the morning, one-and-a-half-year-old Mikias Asnake laughs as his mother, Meseret Haile, bathes him at home in the Gemechis woreda (district), in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. Meseret is preparing to join a community conversation at the nearby Wolargi health post, to learn how to ensure the health of children and mothers in the community.

Meseret Haile, with her son Mikias on her back, prepares food at a community information session on nutrition at the Wolargi health post, in Ethiopia's Oromia region.
Meseret Haile, with her son Mikias on her back, prepares food at a community information session on nutrition at the Wolargi health post, in Ethiopia’s Oromia region. ©UNICEF Video

Meseret and her son Mikias are among approximately a million children and 600,000 pregnant and lactating women in four African countries (Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mali and Uganda) targeted by Africa’s Nutrition Security Partnership (ANSP). In Ethiopia, the focus is on 20 woredas in the Amhara, Oromia and Southern Nations and Nationalities Peoples (SNNP) regions. Ethiopia is nearing the end of a four-year national nutrition security programme supported jointly by the European Union and UNICEF, which builds on government-led efforts to reduce the rates of undernutrition among children under 5 years old and mothers.

With a population of more than 30 million people, Oromia is Ethiopia’s largest region, and more than 80 per cent of its residents live in rural areas. Health Extension Worker Binti Mohammed is one of those helping to improve infant and young feeding practices, as well as maternal and adolescent nutrition.

Key aspects of the community-based nutrition programme are monthly growth monitoring and promotion, community conversations, iron folate supplementation for pregnant mothers as well as promoting local complementary food production.

Community outreach

“Before the nutrition programmes started, there was a lack of awareness in the community,” Binti says. “Some people didn’t know they could feed their children well using locally available ingredients.”

Today, the Government’s Heath Extension Programme deploys more than 36,000 health extension workers, who provide community-based health promotion and disease-prevention services, mostly to people in rural areas.

Binti explains that women bring their children to the health post on a monthly basis for growth-monitoring sessions and nutrition counselling. If the child is doing well, Binti encourages the mother to continue feeding her child properly. If the child is moderately underweight or has not gained enough weight since the previous growth-monitoring session, she will counsel the mother on possible causes and solutions. Inadequate household food security, poor child feeding practices, inadequate access to sanitation and safe water, recurring drought and harmful social and traditional practices all contribute to malnutrition in Oromia.

Health extension worker Binti Mohammed counsels a woman, who is holding her infant, on best nutrition practices
Health extension worker Binti Mohammed counsels a woman, who is holding her infant, on best nutrition practices, at the health post in the village of Wolargi, in Gemechis, a woreda (district) of Oromia Region © UNICEF/NYHQ2014-3628/Nesbitt

Changing behaviour

Reflecting on the past situation, Binti notes, “There is a big change. Previously, if their children became malnourished, people would take them to traditional healers and wait until they were close to dying. They never took them to a health facility. Now, since we saved children here at the facility, people have started bringing malnourished children from every village to the health post.”

At the Wolargi Health Post, Meseret attends the dialogue with community members exploring best practices for feeding children in their community, followed by a practical demonstration.

“We started in the morning with a community conversation, and then the health worker showed us how to prepare nutritious food for our children,” she says. “We learned that the porridge should also include vegetables, because they’re good for the child’s health.”

The ingredients of the porridge include wheat, barley, sorghum, oats, lentils, beans, groundnuts, cabbage, milk, egg, potato, carrot, beetroot, iodised salt and oil.

“My plan, starting from today, is to feed my baby in a proper way, and to keep his mind bright, and to make him a good student, to help him have a good status in society in the future,” Meseret says.

Through the community-based nutrition programme, the project supports building the resilience of communities to food insecurity. It is also designed to strengthen the community’s ability to recognise the causes of malnutrition and to take action by making better use of family, community and external support networks. Since 2011, the number of underweight children participating in the programme has been halved.

27,000 People to benefit from Multiple Village Clean Water Supply Project in Tigray

Young girl fetchs water from a new water point built by the support of UNICEF
The Ebo clean water project benefits 27, 000 people in seven villages including 15, 000 school children with clean water in their school and households. Young girls now can attend school regularly without spending more time looking for water. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Bizuwerk

Ebo, Raya Azebo woreda, Tigray 11 February 2015: A multiple clean water supply scheme in Ebo, Raya Azebo woreda of the Tigray National Regional State goes operational today. The project will benefit 27,000 people in seven villages including 15,000 school children with clean water in their school and households.

The Ebo clean water project, with a total cost of 20 million Ethiopian Birr, is a unique project as it not only demonstrates how investments in long term sustainable water supplies can reduce the carbon emissions from water trucks, but also contributes to making Ethiopian towns and villages greener and healthier for women and children. The project shows how resilient water supply solutions can be implemented in areas where there is low average rainfall and difficult hydrological conditions. In addition, it is 70 per cent cheaper than water trucking which has been the practice previously in the villages.

The Regional Government of Tigray and the woreda Administration of Raya Azebo actively partnered with UNICEF Ethiopia to undertake a detailed technical groundwater assessment to locate deep groundwater which could be exploited for this water supply scheme. UNICEF also called on its large national and international expertise to provide high technical support and mobilised funds from UNICEF Germany to finance the construction of the entire water supply scheme.

Multiple clean water scheme inauguration
H.E Ato Alemayehu Tegenu, Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy and Ms. Anupama Rao Singh, UNICEF Ethiopia Representative a.i. cut the ribbon inaugurating the Ebo multiple water supply scheme facilities. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Bizuwerk

Inaugurating the project, Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy, H.E Ato Alemayehu Tegenu said, “We went to every corner of the possible system to make the voice of water and sanitation heard. And to promote synergies between all those whose mandate mattered to water. Now, our country has made tremendous progress over the past decade in the water and sanitation sectors and lowered the incidence of water-borne diseases significantly. We now have the opportunity to witness such a breakthrough, made possible through the committed effort of the government, development partners, NGOs, the private sector and the community. Raya Azebo Multiple Village Clean Water Supply Project in Tigray region is one of the exemplary project, providing the community with reliable access to safe water.”

UNICEF Ethiopia Representative a.i. Ms. Anupma Rao Singh said, “UNICEF will increase its technical and financial support to the water supply and sanitation sector in the Tigray Region. We also reaffirm our commitment to finance another 3 multiple village water supply schemes similar to the Ebo scheme with the aim of alleviating the burden of water collection for tens of thousands of women and children in the Tigray region.”

Ethiopia has made substantial progress in improving access to water supply and sanitation coverage since 1990. The recent National WASH Inventory data helps to confirm that, with the 2015 prediction of 57 per cent water supply coverage, Ethiopia is well on track to meet the water target of halving the 86 per cent of the population without water. The completion of such cost effective schemes is an indication that the country is now heading into innovative approaches to address people especially the hard to reach areas who are without access to safe water services.

Moving the conversation forwards: Religious leaders vow to join hands for children with UNICEF

Group Photo: UNICEF consultative workshop with religious leaders in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has come a long way, in development terms, since it adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as part of its national agenda. Remarkable achievements have been registered within various social wellbeing parameters. Most notably, the country has achieved MDG 4 – to reduce child mortality by two thirds – three years ahead of schedule. A lot remains to be done, however, particularly in reaching the most disadvantaged children – 3 million are out of school, 40 percent of under-fives are malnourished, only 7 percent of births are formally registered, less than one-third of pregnant women deliver in health facilities, key vaccinations are achieving less than 70 percent coverage and a high number of girls are being exposed to a variety of harmful traditional practices.

While Ethiopia is on track to achieving the majority of MDGs before the 2015 deadline, the involvement of stakeholders, such as religious leaders, is crucial. This is particularly true in reaching the most disadvantaged communities. In line with this premise, UNICEF held a consultative workshop with religious leaders on Monday, 23 June 2014, in Addis Ababa. The half-day workshop targeted the creation of shared values and common ground in bringing a more prosperous future to the children of Ethiopia.

“We aim today to begin a new conversation, enabling us to work together towards a common goal,” said Dr Peter Salama, UNICEF Representative to Ethiopia, whilst opening the workshop, further emphasising that religious institutions are able to reach out to communities at a grassroots level more effectively than any other social network. They are also instrumental in influencing positive behaviour and social norms, and thus working with these institutions is not considered as a second option. Dr. Salama spoke of the need to scale up UNICEF’s work with religious leaders on what they are uniquely positioned to achieve among their millions of followers – mobilisation for action in the wellbeing of children.

After a brief presentation of UNICEF’s guide on partnerships with religious communities and the situation of children in Ethiopia, the workshop continued with discussions centred around experiences and priority intervention areas.

Best Experiences Shared

The civic engagement of religious institutions in Ethiopia is commendable.  For instance, the experience shared by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church revealed that the church’s 42-year-old development wing has been actively involved in numerous developmental activities placing women and children at the centre of the issue. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission has developed declarations on gender based violence and harmful traditional practices, as well as safe motherhood.  What was interesting for participants was the church’s adoption of a “Development Bible”, which contains 360 daily teachings, incorporating over 45 contextualised messages. These include a focus on gender equality, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), maternal health, HIV/AIDS and Harmful Traditional Practices (HTPs).

Similarly, the Ethiopian Muslim Supreme Council shared information of their work towards a “fatwa” (declaration) against FGM/C. A representative from the Council recounted how talking about FGM/C had been a taboo for religious fathers of previous years. However, leaders are now speaking out against the practice and bringing change in project areas. The Council also underlined the need to scale up the intervention, in order to stop the practice altogether. The experience of the Ethiopian Catholic Church in the development of the Child Protection Policy and the concept of ‘serving the whole person’ expressed by the Ethiopian Evangelical Church, Mekanyesus, and the Kale Hiwot Church, was also shared with participants.

Three umbrella Forums – the Ethiopian Interfaith Forum for Development Dialogue and Action, the Inter-Religious Council Ethiopia and the Evangelical Church Fellowship Ethiopia – also shared their experiences in mobilising member institutions in various projects. These included maternal and child health, peace building and HIV prevention. The efforts to mainstream the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and HTPs in theological schools was also highlighted.

Way Forward

In the past, UNICEF and other organisations predominantly worked with the development wing of religious institutions. However, it is recognised that this undermines the significant return of actively engaging in the spiritual wings. The spiritual wing reaches over 97% of the nation’s population through various religious structures, whilst the regional presence and coverage of development wings is dependent upon resources.

UNICEF is keen to work with both the spiritual and development wings of the major religious institutions and umbrella forums through a long term strategic partnership. UNICEF is also ready to provide technical support, policy advice and capacity building on the key child related interventions conducted by these institutions. The religious leaders have also reaffirmed their commitment to working with UNICEF.

Before the close of the workshop, participants agreed to form a small working group to develop the partnership framework.