Health workers create awareness on the consequences of child marriage in Amhara

“I go to visit new mothers seven days after giving birth to give them iron, and it is then I will refer them to hospital if they are suffering from fistula. I referred two women recently,” explains Hebeste Admas, 26, a Health Extension Worker at a local health post in the Bandani Kebele (neighbourhood) of the Dangla Woreda (district) in Amhara, Ethiopia.

Hebeste continues, “Child marriage results in so many other health consequences including miscarriage and stunting of the child. A girl’s uterus may be damaged from intercourse and she will suffer great psychological distress. I have seen all of this.”

Yitayesh Akalu, Expert at the Dangla Women, Children and Youth Affairs Office comments: “The problem of fistula is so huge we have dedicated fistula health centres. Fistula happens mostly to child and adolescent mothers as a result of intense and prolonged labour – their bodies are simply not developed enough to give birth. We have community ambulances so that fistula cases can be treated straight away. A girl will be transported by youth groups carrying her on a bed until they get to an accessible area where the ambulance will collect her.”

Hebeste has been a Health Extension Worker since she was 17, and her role includes teaching community members about the health consequences of child marriage.

Hibist Admas, 26, has worked as a health extension worker for 9 years. She witnesses a major decline in child marriage over the past few years. She says she doesn't face any hardship regarding her fight against child marriage as she works closely with gov

“In my 9 years as a Health Extension Worker I have seen a decline in child marriage as a result of community awareness, and I do believe the practice will stop. I report cases to the police. There is no confidentiality as they are breaking the law. However people hold alternative ceremonies in secret to hide that it is a child marriage – at night or at dawn. Then the girl disappears and the family say she has gone to live with an aunt.”

Hebeste continues: “But local health workers like me know every pregnant woman and the Women’s Development Groups and Health Development Groups who look after the wellbeing of girls and prevent them marrying, operate at the village level. So we know. The development armies report to me and I report cases to the health centre and police.”

Hebeste notes the way girls who are forced to marry are not as able to protect their own health and plan their families. She explains: “There is a real difference between older and younger women who are married. Adult women come to me for family planning services without the knowledge or consent of their husband. Whereas when girls marry as children, they do not understand the consequences of sex, they are not empowered to seek advice, and so they do not come to me.

“I have had parents bring their daughter to me ahead of marriage saying they want contraceptives for her to try and avoid the complications of childbirth. The girl told me she was really scared to be marrying an adult man. I reported them.”

Young people are important actors in ending child marriage in Africa

Theme of the Day of the African Child 2015: “25 Years after the Adoption of the African Children’s Charter: Accelerating our Collective Efforts to End Child Marriage in Africa”

Ubah Jemal, 15, makes a call before a meeting of the Girls Club in Jigjiga, Somali Region, Ethiopia
Ubah Jemal, 15, makes a call before a meeting of the Girls Club in Jigjiga, Somali Region, Ethiopia, 24 January 2015. Ubah is the vice president of the Somali Region Children’s Parliament, a position that enabled her to engage and empower girls in Jigjiga town, where she lives. In addition to heading the Girls Club in her own high school, she is responsible for setting up similar clubs in all the primary schools of her town. Ubah wants to pursue the field of medicine while continuing to serve in leadership position. “I want to become a doctor because it grants the opportunity to touch peoples’ lives directly, but ultimately, I want to become a leader, preferably a president,” she says. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Bindra

NEW YORK/ADDIS ABABA, 16 June 2015 – Child marriage remains a brutal reality for millions of girls across Africa, denying them the right to live healthy and fulfilling lives. 

Poverty, lack of education, gender stereotyping, discrimination and negative religious practices have resulted in millions of these girls being married off before their 18th birthday.

In Ethiopia, Child Marriage of girls is prevalent throughout the country and is clearly a gender issue, given the considerable difference between men and women in age at marriage. According to the Ethiopian Demographic Health Survey (EDHS) of 2011, the median age at first marriage for women is 17.1, almost a year below the legal age of marriage, whereas the median for men was six years older, at 23.1. 

“Child Marriage affects girls in various ways and denies their right to fully develop their potential and be in charge of their destiny,” said Ms. Gillian Mellsop, UNICEF Representative to Ethiopia. “Hence, Ethiopia is heading in the right direction due to the concrete actions taken by the Government and its developments partners including the adoption of a national strategy on Harmful Traditional Practices, the formation of a national alliance to end child marriage, the strong commitments made by the government at the July 2014 Girls Summit in London to end child marriage and FGM/C by 2025.” 

Haimanot Gashu (center), 12, stands outside the Goha Primary School in Goha Kebele, Dera Woreda, Amhara Region, Ethiopia
Haimanot Gashu (center), 12, stands outside the Goha Primary School in Goha Kebele, Dera Woreda, Amhara Region, Ethiopia, 28 January 2015. Married at the age of seven, she is currently under a lot of pressure from her mother to move in with her husband, as she is now considered old enough to run her own home. She currently lives with her uncle and aunt. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Bindra

UNICEF in collaboration with other stakeholders is currently supporting the government of Ethiopia in meeting their commitments. UNICEF will continue to support the scale up of programmes and interventions which have proven to have a positive impact on girls and women empowerment.  The programmes will also ensure that the various interventions deliver concrete results for the girls through proper monitoring and evaluation systems.

The magnitude of violations occasioned in a single act of marrying off a child cannot be underestimated. In the worst of cases, a girl who becomes pregnant when her body is not yet ready may die at childbirth. Her baby may also not survive: a double tragedy. Infants born to adolescent mothers are 60 per cent more likely to die in their first year, and are more likely to be malnourished.

 “We cannot downplay or neglect the harmful practice of child marriage, as it has long term and devastating effects on these girls whose health is at risk and at worst leading to death due to child birth and other complications,” said Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission.

 The African Union Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa encourages governments across the continent to set the minimum age of marriage at 18 years. The Campaign also focuses on strengthening families and communities to protect their children, and ensuring they have access to key information and services of quality.

The Day of the African Child (DAC) will serve to shine a brighter spotlight on the contribution that young people are making to accelerate the movement towards ending child marriage at multiple levels. From young reporters who publish stories on child marriage, to young people who speak at international fora, to those who take part in discussions with their families, their peers and their communities about the benefits of delaying marriage and pregnancies and in action to end the practice – they are important agents of change. Their role can be further enhanced through the provision of life skills, quality education and training.

This year’s DAC will be 25 years since it was first marked, and will focus on ending child marriage in Africa. While the DAC commemorations are held on 16 June each year across countries in Africa, the official continental commemoration will take place in Soweto, South Africa, on 15 June 2015. 

The DAC also coincides with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), and an opportunity to reinforce the commitment by African governments to children’s rights, while examining the main achievements and challenges in the implementation of the ACRWC.

Hundreds of children from South Africa will be joined in Soweto by others from across Africa, to commemorate the DAC and further urge the African leadership to do more for children, especially in ending child marriage.

How can we redefine the world’s view to make the case for protecting girls?

My reflections on the Girl Summit, July 2014 
By Hannah Godefa, UNICEF National Ambassador to Ethiopia 

Hannah Godefa, UNICEF National Ambassador for Ethiopia, speaking at Girl Summit 2014
Hannah Godefa, UNICEF National Ambassador to Ethiopia, speaking at Girl Summit 2014 ©Marisol Grandon/DFID

The Girl Summit was a forum designed and hosted by the UK Government and UNICEF, to mobilize all world efforts to end female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and end child, early and forced marriage in my generation. It openly discussed issues of gender inequity and disparity and challenged public and non-profit sector leaders to create innovative solutions and commitments at the Summit. Closing this event was a surreal experience, and an absolute honour. When representing any demographic, there is a certain amount of responsibility to present the absolute truth of the issue. In this particular event, I had the incredible opportunity to echo the voices of the many girls around the world taking action in response to the calls to end the endless challenges for girls in education, health and the community, which further perpetuated harmful traditional practices. #Youthforchange hosted by UK Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening and Home Secretary Theresa May exemplified that spirit of change by having a youth-focused audience and engaging programmes. Important strategies such as school outreach were discussed, including a competition honouring schools that creatively used media as a method of presenting these vital issues.

It was then up to the many public leaders at the Girl Summit to respond. We heard from UK Prime Minister David Cameron, girl activists like Malala Yousafzai and various NGO’s to answer questions on financing for girls, ensuring equal access to education, and protection from FGM/C and child marriage. There were also discussions with likes of Anthony Lake, Executive Director of UNICEF and Deputy Minister of Ethiopia- H.E Ato Demeke Mekonnen. All who participated in the discussion recognized protecting girls was not only the right thing to do, but critical to our global future. Ending off the day in the closing plenary allowed me to re-state the importance for girl involvement and engagement in these discussions, to ensure girl voices are represented around the world.

Hannah Godefa, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, speaking at  Youth For Change
Hannah Godefa, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, speaking at Youth For Change ©Russell Watkins/DFID

As we all know, discussions among the public and private leaders are not enough. When we have the opportunity to make a difference anywhere, we should seize it, however special attention should be given to the issues girls face, as they are the foundation of our future. It is all in the facts: empowered and protected girls are able to form their families and communities and better contribute to our world socially and economically. The dialogue exercised at the Girl Summit cannot end there. It must manifest into commitments, be implemented into action and support this movement of rising girls around the world. Only then will we start to see a change in the way the world values girls. Girls are the mothers, community leaders and advocates of today. It all starts with a promise to champion for girls everywhere. If the way we view ourselves shapes our future, and our perspective influences how we invest our resources, the most important question is: how can we redefine the world’s view to make the case for protecting girls?

Abduction survivor Gelane Degefa is clear where her priorities lay 

By Elshadai Negash

February 1st 2012 was supposed to be a regular school day for then-15 year old Gelane Degefa*. She started her day in Lugiatebela village, Sebeta Awas district, Oromia region, 25kms from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa; early by making a 30min journey to kick off the day with biology lessons in high school. Three more one-hour classes later, the school day was over and she was on her way home when she spotted a familiar, but disturbing sight from a distance.

“It was Kebede Chala,” she says of her neighbour who had dropped out of school a few years ago to work on his parents’ farm. “I knew immediately that I was in trouble.”

Kebede had persistently courted Degefa for more than 18 months before formally approaching her parents a year earlier to ask for her hand in marriage. “He used to say things like ‘what good would school be for you. I would provide you with everything if you marry me’,” she says. “I told him [Kebede] that I was too young to get married. My parents repeated the same thing when he asked them as well, but he refused to let go. My friends had overheard of his plans to abduct me. I told this to our headmaster. When he heard about this, he stopped bothering me for a while.”

A few minutes later, Kebede  and five of his friends grabbed her and tried their best to stifle her screams. “It was one of the worst days of my life,” she recalls. “But I was very fortunate. It was harvest collection season and some farmers heard my screams and came running to rescue me after we travelled for about 5km. When he and his friends were surrounded by the farmers, they ran away and I was able to escape.”

A Saudi returnee waits in the scorching heat to hop on a transport to take her back to her home area
Picture not related to story

But her aggressor did not stop then. “A few weeks later, he sent elders to my school to complain that we were preventing him from marrying Aleme,” says Beyene Kebede, Degefa’s Chemistry teacher. “Our school director reported this to the police. They gave us hope and told us to inform them if there are any incidents involving Mosisa. He did not bother her from then on and she has been attending school this year without any problems.”

Degefa was not the first girl Kebede tried to abduct and force into early marriage. “He tried to abduct my friend Mergia Abebe, a girl I personally worked hard to convince her parents to allow her to go to school,” says Degefa, who is a member of the Girls Club at her school. “Her parents tried to get marry her to Mosisa, but we worked very hard to convince her to change their mind. She was in the second grade then, now she is a top student and just earned top marks when progressing to grade six.”

By “we”, Degefa is talking about a youth club supported by UNICEF to assist highly vulnerable children and prevent the abduction of school girls. Part of a five-year joint programme with UNICEF and the United Nations Fund for Populations Activities (UNFPA) and funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy (RNE) to Ethiopia, the rights-based approach to adolescents and youth development in Ethiopia has worked to prevent girls like Degefa and Abebe from getting married early after abduction and in some cases stopped marriages after parents had agreed to marry to children to abductors.

“Abduction is a major harmful traditional practice in our area,” says Abegaz Tadesse, UNICEF/UNFPA Joint Programme coordinator in the Sebeta Awas district’s health office. “Many of the abductors are not prosecuted because it is expensive for the families to open and then follow a case to completion. What we are doing with this joint programme is strengthen the support to girls who go to school by using youth clubs to make them aware of their rights and quickly report any approaches by abductors.”

Shebere Telila* is another recipient of the support that youth clubs in the district’s schools provided. The 15-year old, who finished as a second best student in her class this year, was repeatedly approached by older boys who asked her mother for her hand in marriage. “I have dreams of growing up and becoming an engineer to build big buildings and large bridges,” she says. “Now is not the time for me to get married. My mother also knows this and would tell this to people who came to ask for marriage.”

One particular boy, however, did not heed to this and would even brag to her neighbours how he would wait for her one day when she returns from school and make her his. “Whenever someone in our neighbourhood told me about this, I would feel freightened,” she says. “My brother used to walk me to and from school for a while, but I knew that this could not be done forever.”

But rather than staying frightened, Telila, now a member of the youth club in her school; decided to confront her aggressor. “I went to our headmaster’s office with our class prefect to tell him everything,” she says. “Our headmaster then wrote a letter to our kebele [village] office and they instructed him to stop. They called him for a meeting and made him write a letter in front of his friends and family promising that he would not lay hands on me. When I saw that he signed the letter, I was relieved. On his face, I saw the same fear that he would put me through. I knew he would not defy his family and friends to do something to me. I knew I was a free person.”

Today, Telila makes the 30-minute commute from her home to school without any fear that a creepy teenager would emerge from the obscure mountains to attack her. At school, she takes time from studies to discuss her experience with younger girls and give them confidence on how to protect themselves. “Some of the members of our club have been victims and so we know the signs,” she says about the peer-assist mechanism in place at the youth club. “We also visit parents at home to encourage girls to come to school regularly and ask them not to marry their children at a young age.”

And what does she advise other girls who get approached by boys for early marriage?

“To be young and pretty is not a crime. Rather, being quiet when someone is pushing you to get married is the crime. Come out and tell everyone about your problems. Do not keep quiet until it is too late. Just do what I did and seek help. If you do, there is plenty of it available.”

*Names have been changed to protect identity of the girls.