by Laura Hill, Communications Manager, CARE Australia
In a small, rural village in northern Ethiopia, Fikere and her husband Kasa would like to have three children – two boys and a girl. Late at night, after a hard day’s work on the farm, they talk about sending their kids to school and dream that they will finish university and get good jobs.
Yet there was a time not that long ago when discussions like this were a pipe dream for 18-year-old Fikere. Her husband used to be distant and bossy, and never listened to her views. She had resigned herself to doing what he said to avoid being hurt.
‘Life was miserable before. I had to do all the housework like collecting water, preparing food, looking after his [Kasa’s] parents and the coffee ceremony,’ says Fikere. ‘My high workload meant I was never able to visit my family or go to church or village ceremonies.’
Fikere married Kasa – her second husband – when she was 15. She married her first husband when she was 12 years old but he divorced her at age 14 because she didn’t want to have a baby.
‘I was happy to be rid of him,’ says Fikere of her first husband who was 15 years older than her. ‘I never wanted to marry him in the first place but it was arranged by my parents.’
Fikere’s story is echoed across all corners of the globe. Child marriage affects 14 million girls each year and is, without exception, the biggest challenge to girls’ development. The centuries-old practice perpetuates poverty by cutting short a girl’s education and livelihood opportunities, keeping her poor.
The reasons for child marriage are complex and varied; poverty, cultural norms, lack of education and concerns around girl’s security all play a part. This was the case for Fikere, who was viewed as an economic burden, and accepting a marriage proposal seemed like a good way to alleviate her parents’ financial stress and provide for her future.
But no one in her family understood that by forcing Fikere into premature adulthood, her early marriage and the responsibility of caring for a household would thwart her chance at education, endanger her health and cut short her personal growth and development.
All this took place before CARE’s TESFA project, which stands for Towards Improved Economic and Sexual Reproductive Health Outcomes for Adolescent Girls, and means hope in the local language, started in Fikere’s village.
Nowadays, she and her husband are benefiting from the project. Over a year ago, Fikere joined a support group with other married teenagers. The group meets weekly to learn about sexual and reproductive health, and how to save and invest money. They discuss topics from how to care for a newborn to how to communicate in a relationship.
‘Because I married at an early age I stopped going to school. This made me very sad, but through the TESFA project I am learning again, and my husband and I have agreed that I will return to school soon. My life was dark before, but now there is light,’ says Fikere.
This is a major breakthrough, given her previous relationship with Kasa. When asked what has changed, Fikere says, ‘Attending the peer group meetings gave me the confidence and skill to talk to Kasa about what I was learning and share my ideas for how we could earn more money and live a better life.’
‘While I was going to the peer-group classes and learning how to save and budget money, Kasa was attending village meetings about the TESFA project.’
‘After a few months I noticed that he started listening to me and asking questions, instead of telling me what to do. Then he started helping me with the housework. Now he looks after his parents so that I can visit my family, and he has even prepared the coffee ceremony for his friends so that I can practice reading.’
Fikere adds, ‘Before, I used to hide the contraceptive pill in my headscarf so he wouldn’t find out, but now he knows I am taking it and understands why. We want to have children, but not until I finish school.’
Kasa is proud of Fikere and says their married life is much happier since they both started taking part in the TESFA project.
‘I enjoy attending the village meetings and learning about the dangers of child marriage and other harmful practices like female cutting,’ says Kasa. ‘Before I thought contraceptives were a bad thing and dangerous, but now I know they give us choice.
‘I married Fikere because she was young, cute and her family had land, but now I love her because of her ideas and how she supports me to build a good life for our family,’ says Kasa.