As families favour education over marriage, girls seek a better future
Tseganesh, 16, in Ethiopia, was at risk of Child Marriage. But with her parents' support, she escaped the practice.
Two years ago when Tseganesh Dansa was only 14 years old, she struck up a friendship with a man she knew as a family friend. When schools closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19, things began to change for the eighth grader. The man gave her 1,500 birrs (USD 40) without the knowledge of her parents and said she could buy whatever she wanted. The gift was soon followed by a marriage proposal which Tseganesh was not prepared for. Her plan was to continue with her education and eventually go to university like her brother, a third-year university student. “I don’t even know what marriage is about; I am just a student,” she says.
As the man’s intentions became clear, Tseganesh started to worry about a lot of things: her education, her future and her family. Her father Dansa Guje is a hard-working farmer and keen about his children’s education while her mother, Tadelech Munie, is an active participant in regular community conversations where issues such as maternal and child health, child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) are openly discussed.
One day, while Tseganesh was making coffee, she overheard her mother discussing the consequences of child marriage on women’s health with neighbours.
“I felt as though my mom was saying these things because she knew what I was getting into,” she says. Then she told her mom what happened. Her mother was upset to hear that an issue she had strongly advocated against was happening to her daughter.
Tseganesh met the man to return his gift of 1,500 birr but he refused, forcing Tseganesh’s father to take the issue to the church leaders and village elders who were also members of a local committee to prevent harmful practices. “All I need is my children to get an education at the highest level possible. What good would marriage do for young girls other than bring suffering?” says Dansa
The church leaders met with Tseganesh and the man separately to hear each side of the story. “I pleaded that I won’t marry. I was concerned about my education,” says Tseganesh.
The verdict of the elders was clear. The man was advised to take his money back, which he did, and to respect her wishes. They warned him of other measures if he persisted with his intentions. For precaution, Tseganesh moved to town to stay with her aunt for a while.
Unlike the case in many parts of Ethiopia where marriage is arranged by family members, Tseganesh is grateful to have protection from her family and the community. “My parents stood with me. I owe them a lot,” she says.
In the remote village of Kuto Ambe, members of the community including, church leaders, regularly participate in community conversations where they discuss child marriage and FGM. With shared roles and responsibilities, the community took ownership of its problems and continues to resolve them. As much as possible, issues get sorted amicably using local wisdom. Sanctions such as suspension from church and social ostracization are applied on offenders. When families fail to accept the decision of the community leaders, the case will be reported to the police for legal action.
“We work with religious leaders, elders, schools and especially with health extension workers. They give us valuable information when it comes to child marriage,” says Mulunesh Taltamo, head of the wereda (district) Women, Children and Youth Affairs Office. “The challenge is, because of the Corona pandemic, we could not hold as many community sessions as we wanted.”
Despite the challenges, volunteers are visiting houses to track potential child marriage and FGM arrangements as well as disseminate educational messages on the negative consequences of child marriage, the value of girls’ education and the need to send back girls to school when schools are re-opening with COVID-19 precautions. In addition, radio is used to inform community members on available prevention and response services related to violence, abuse and harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation.
In the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples region where Tseganesh lives, a significant decline has been observed in child marriage. The percentage of women who married before age 18 has dropped from 62 per cent in 1991 to 31 in 2016. This is partly because of community focused sensitization and monitoring activities like the one in Kuto Ambe.
UNICEF supports the establishment and strengthening of community-based structures as part of a strengthened child protection system that protects girls and boys from violence, exploitation, abuse and harmful practices. These include the anti-harmful practices committees and surveillance teams. These structures are playing a vital role keeping an eye on girls at risk of marriage.
Child marriage robs girls of their childhood and threatens their lives and health. Child brides often become pregnant during adolescence, when the risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth increases – for themselves and their infants. “I have seen a young girl become pregnant and have a little baby,” says Tseganesh. “I felt bad to see her quit school. I don’t want to be like that.”
Tseganesh has sat for the grade 8 national exam and is waiting for the results. For now, she is helping her mother at home with household chores. Her wish is to enroll in a university and make her parents proud.