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Fighting for girls’ rights in rural areas

Thirteen-year-old Mulu Melka’s soft voice and shy demeanour hide a character marked by courage, determination and steady nerves.

When she was 11 years old, Mulu was abducted by a man who locked her up in his house for the night.

The abduction of girls for marriage is widespread in many regions of rural Ethiopia.

Traditionally, in order to marry, a groom and his family must pay a sizable sum to the bride’s parents. But to some impoverished men, abducting a girl and then negotiating marriage through the village elders is a less costly alternative.

Typically, a girl is abducted by a man or group of men and then raped by the man who wants to marry her (which might be someone she knows or a complete stranger).

The girl is then returned to her family, and the elders from the abductor’s village request that she marry the man who raped her. The girl’s family often consents, believing that they cannot refuse because their daughter has lost her virginity and it is therefore socially unacceptable for her to marry another man.

Fortunately, Mulu managed to escape out the back door the day after she was abducted. Fearing her parents would force her to marry her kidnapper, she sought refuge with an aunt. After a few weeks, the aunt persuaded Mulu’s parents to take her back and allow her to continue her education.

“I didn’t want to marry that man. I wanted to continue with my studies,” Mulu explains quietly, her eyes fixed on the floor.

Fending off early marriage

Mulu, who says that she was not raped by her abductor, was able to avoid early marriage on that occasion. Earlier this year, however, her parents and community elders tricked her into marriage with a much older man whom she had never met.

This time she was trapped, until something she had learned in the classroom gave her an escape route.

At school, Mulu had learned that HIV could be sexually transmitted. With that in mind, she insisted that both she and her husband take an AIDS test before consummating their marriage. In a country where, in 2003, AIDS caused an estimated 30 per cent of all deaths among 15-49 year olds, it was a request that no one could refuse.

The test revealed that she was healthy, but her husband was HIV-positive. The community elders agreed to annul the marriage immediately. Mulu’s parents were upset because of the shame she brought on them, and her former husband is still determined to get her back. But she has remained steadfast in her refusal to return to the marriage and has threatened to run away if her parents try to force her into marriage again.

A life-saving lesson

Through her ingenuity and courage, Mulu protected herself from becoming infected with the HIV virus and saved herself from losing out on an education. Her experience has only strengthened her conviction that going to school is crucial, especially for girls. “If I’m not educated, I will always be under a man’s power,” she says. “What I want is to be independent, not to be ordered around by someone else.”

Inspired by Mulu’s resourcefulness, Abeche Simel, the district official charged with promoting girls’ education, and UNICEF Education Officer Kefyalew Ayano decided to pay Mulu’s father, Satu Melka, a visit.

Sitting in his traditional round mud house, they respectfully asked him to support Mulu’s education and do the same for his two younger daughters. The girls, they explained, have the same rights as boys.

In the end, Satu Melka agreed to respect his daughter’s wishes to stay in school.

Seven other girls who attend Mulu’s school have been abducted this year. Since she walks for two hours every day to get to and from school, Mulu is terrified of being abducted again. And yet, with characteristic courage and determination, she keeps returning to the classroom day after day.

For Mulu, going to school has saved her life and helped her avoid early marriage. Find out how education can help attack gender discrimination at its root and thus produce the double dividend of fulfilling the rights of women and those of children.