After becoming a child bride at just 12 years of age, Eleni* was forced to leave school and her family. When she joined a group supported by CARE for child-brides, she decided to approach her parents for support to get a divorce and return to school. She’s now studying to become a nurse, and her family are vocal opponents of child marriage.
Twelve-year-old 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 like 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 was scared and angry because no one told me I was going to be married or that I would be leaving my family behind for another village,’ says Eleni.
‘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 in Ethiopia, where two in every five girls are married before their 18th birthday and nearly one in five girls are 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.
In the case of Eleni, her parent’s decision to marry their daughter to a man five years older than her was for financial reasons.
‘I am the youngest in my family, and my parents were getting older and finding it difficult to raise enough money to pay for school,’ says Eleni. ‘They wanted someone to look after me and thought my life would be better if I had a husband. They had arranged my siblings’ marriages and didn’t think to question how early marriage would affect my life.’
Eleni says her husband and his family treated her well, but married-life at age twelve wasn’t for her.
‘I missed my family; I was tired all the time from doing a lot of housework and I wanted to go back to school.
‘I was worried about getting pregnant so I secretly went to the health clinic to get contraceptives. When my husband found out he was very mad and I knew I couldn’t do it [be married] anymore.’
Fortunately, Eleni had recently joined a support group for married girls run by CARE. The twice a month meetings run by a trained peer group leader gave her the chance to learn about sexual and reproductive health, how to save and invest money, lessons on how to care for a newborn, and how to communicate in a relationship. Another benefit is the opportunity for Eleni to meet and talk about 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 ever-married (married, divorced and widowed) girls aged 14 to 19. In addition to the support groups, other program activities include a weekly radio program on child marriage, large community meetings, and recruiting and training members of the community such as parents, religious leaders, health workers and teachers on the dangers of early marriage and how they can help prevent it from happening in their village.
With the improved communication, negotiation and problem-solving skills 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.
Her mother Asmarech recalls the moment Eleni told her parents she wanted to get a divorce.
‘At the beginning it was very difficult for us to understand why she wanted a divorce, but after a long discussion we accepted her wish and permitted her to tell her husband,’ says Asmarech.
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 14-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.
As well as going to school, Eleni still attends the TESFA support group meetings and is saving money through a village savings and loan program to help fund her dream of becoming a nurse.
‘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.
You can save more girls like Eleni from the dangers of early marriage – donate to CARE’s Child Marriage Appeal
by Laura Hill, Communications Manager, CARE Australia
*CARE is committed to being a child safe organisation. Names of children have been changed.