by Laura Hill, CARE Communications Manager
Fourteen-year-old Eleni* was married when she was twelve to a man much older than her. He treated her quite well, but she wasn’t ready to have children and wanted to continue her education.
Through a CARE support group for young married girls, Eleni gained confidence and convinced her husband and her parents that she wanted a divorce. Now she’s back in grade 10 and studying her favourite subject, biology.
Two years ago, Eleni was so excited to be receiving new clothes from her parents that she didn’t ask why until it was too late.
Dressed in a new t-shirt and skirt, she was greeted liked a princess by family and neighbours. As the sun rose higher in the sky, guests started to arrive at her house, goats were slaughtered to feed the gathering crowd, and she was brought before her soon-to-be husband for the first time.
Shock and fear filled Eleni as she realised she was about to be married.
‘I didn’t have time to think about how being married would impact my life and dreams. I didn’t even have the chance to talk about it with my parents. The ceremony was over before I knew what had happened.’
Child marriage is common place in Ethiopia, where two in every five girls are married before their 18th birthday and nearly one in five girls is married before the age of 15. In the Amhara region, where Eleni lives, the picture is even bleaker – almost half of all girls are married by the age of 15.
Early marriage is a deep-rooted tradition in many Ethiopian communities, perpetuated by poverty, a limited chance for education and economic opportunities, and social customs that limit the rights of women and girls.
Fortunately, Eleni had recently joined a support group for married girls run by CARE that gave her the chance to learn about topics such as sexual and reproductive health and how to save and invest money. It also gave Eleni the opportunity to meet and discuss issues with other girls and to make friends.
The support group was part of the TESFA program, which means ‘hope’ in Amharic. The program seeks to bring measurable, positive change in the economic, sexual and reproductive health of adolescent married, divorced and widowed girls aged 14 to 19. Other program activities include a weekly radio program on child marriage, large community meetings, and training other community members such as parents, religious leaders and teachers on the dangers of early marriage and how to prevent it.
With improved communication, negotiation and problem-solving skills that Eleni gained from the support group she had the confidence to discuss her miserable situation with her parents.
‘I spoke with my parents about the dangers of child marriage, such as getting pregnant before my body was ready to have a baby, and that there was a higher risk of getting HIV from my husband. Then I told them how education was the best way for me to help my parents live a better life,’ says Eleni.
Eleni and her parents then spoke with her husband who agreed to the divorce. ‘He was very sad, but understood my dream to return to school,’ says Eleni.
That was one year ago, and today the fourteen-year-old teenager is in grade 10 and putting her energy towards studying her favourite subject – biology – instead of preparing food, collecting water and looking after in-laws.
‘I want to get a good job so that my family can have a better life, and when I’m older I’ll chose a husband that will help me achieve this goal,’ she says.
Eleni’s experience and positivity has had a ripple effect on members of her village. Her mother and father are now vocal opponents of child marriage and speak to other parents about the consequences of the dangerous practice. And Eleni’s story has given married girls in the village the confidence to speak up, get support and reclaim control over their lives.
‘I am so happy the TESFA project came to my village. Without it my life would never have been my own, but now I have a better chance at being happy,’ says Eleni smiling from ear to ear.