Ending child marriage by empowering girls

How gender clubs are encouraging young girls to say no child marriage.

By Feven Getachew
29 January 2020
Birtukan Belay
Birtukan Belay, aged 14 years and in 8th grade, in her class at Selam Elementary School in Andabet Woreda, Amhara Region.

Birtukan Belay, aged 14 years and in 8th grade, dreams of becoming a doctor when she grows-up. Since second grade, she has ranked first in her class at Selam Elementary School in Andabet Woreda, Amhara Region. With her increasing academic success, she truly believed in her potential to achieve her aspirations and positively contribute to her country.

However, to her dismay, when she reached Grade 7 at the age of 13, she began hearing rumors from fellow students that her family was planning to marry her off.  She recalls the day,

“I wasn’t able to concentrate on my classes that day, I was very angry and devastated.”

Child marriage is still a common practice in most parts of Ethiopia, shattering the hopes and opportunities of many girls.  In the Amhara Region, 43 per cent of women aged 20-24 years were first married or in a union before the age of 18, and the region is home to the second highest number of girls and women affected by the practice. [1]      

What happened to Birtukan is not unique. Every day, girls face the risk of their parents arranging a marriage without their knowledge or consent. By the time Birtukan had turned to her school’s gender club coordinator for support, other students had already left a note in the school’s secret box notifying her of Birtukan’s impending marriage. Fortunately, after a series of meetings involving the coordinator and community elders, Birtukan’s family agreed to cancel the marriage.

The Importance of Gender Clubs in Schools

Elementary School in Andabet Woreda, Amhara Region having one-to-one discussions with a student. UNICEFEthiopia/2019/FevenGetachew
Elementary School in Andabet Woreda, Amhara Region having one-to-one discussions with a student. UNICEFEthiopia/2019/FevenGetachew

Tikeber is a teacher at Selam Elementary School and has been a gender club coordinator for three years. One of the challenges she faces is parents insisting on marrying their children. “After parents agree to cancel the arrangement, they still go ahead with the marriage in secret,” she says. “I make sure that the girls are comfortable enough to tell me if it happens to them without any fear.” By closely working with the Anti-Harmful Traditions Practice committee in the community, Tikeber ensures that the marriages are cancelled, and the girls have all the support they need to influence their parents’ decisions.The school’s gender club coordinator, Tikeber Temesgen, plays a crucial role in encouraging students to speak out against child marriage. She facilitates sessions where both girls and boys discuss the negative impact of child marriage and how they can prevent it. In addition, the secret box allows students to notify the coordinator of any intended child marriage arrangements.

Gender clubs are critical platforms established to empower girls and boys and to support the enrolment and retention of girls in school. They offer extra-curricular activities such as lifeskills education and menstrual hygiene management for girls and organize group discussions on how to prevent and respond to gender-based violence and child marriage, including having dedicated sessions with boys. The gender club coordinators are teachers who are trained on gender responsive pedagogy and facilitation in life skills.

The impact of gender clubs is seen in the confidence and determination of girls like Birtukan and her peers who have been through a similar experience. These girls believe in their right to finish school and achieve their dreams. Today, Birtukan openly shares her story with younger girls to encourage them to stand-up against child marriage.

Today, girls at risk of marriage have a support system beyond their school. They strategize with members of the anti-Harmful Traditions Practice committee on educating their parents on child marriage. The Anti-HTP Committee is a coordination mechanism under the Bureau of Women, Children and Youth comprising members from different government sectors and the community. The committee has monthly meetings where a plan of action is discussed.   

 “Now that I am not married, I will continue with my studies and, in the future, get a job and contribute to my country and support my family. I believe I will have a good future,” says Birtukan.

About the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage

The first phase of the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage (2015-2019) has been implemented in 12 countries including Ethiopia, with the objective of galvanizing stronger political support, greater financial resources, and better data and evidence in support of programmatic efforts at scale, helping transform a critical mass of girls, families and communities. 

Since 2015, with the combination of different interventions, more than 41,727 arrangements of child marriage in the Amhara Region were notified, of which 14,052 were cancelled. However, progress in the Region will need to be five times faster than in the last ten years if child marriage is to be eliminated by 2030, the year for achieving target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goal on elimination of child marriage and female genital mutilation. In 2019, the Government of Ethiopia launched a five-year national costed roadmap to end child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (2020-2024). The plan, which costs about US$ 94 million, outlines key evidence-based strategies and interventions to achieve the ambitious goal of eliminating these harmful practices by 2025. The Roadmap aims to empower adolescent girls, engage families and communities to change gender and social norms change, strengthen the system for better service provision especially in justice, education and health, and advocate for the effective implementation of legal and policy frameworks as well as enhancing evidence generation and use.

[1] United Nations Children’s Fund, Ending Child Marriage: A profile of progress in Ethiopia, UNICEF, New York, 2018.