“I got married because my mother is poor”
As child marriage threatens girls' futures in Ethiopia, social workers come to the rescue
“May be mom, it would be easier if I live with the man to relieve your burden,” says Belaynesh Hussien 14, after she overheard the conversation of her mother with guests while sitting in the back of their decrepit house.
In fact, she saw the visitors coming a few times before, but that day, she knew what they were requesting: to marry her off to a man she doesn’t know.
First, her mother, Fantaye Yimam, finds it difficult to accept their request. “My daughter was only 14 and still in school. How could I let her go? Besides, her eldest sister also got married at a young age just because we are struggling to make ends meet. After my husband died, life is hard for our family,”
But later, Fantaye accepted the request. Before the next academic year started, Belaynesh left her home.
When school started in September, the young girl was missing. For the first few days, no one seemed to notice. Later, it was Sinishaw Hailemariam a teacher and the gender-focal person, who knew that she is not even registered for the academic year.
“We understood that something is wrong,” he says. “We went to her home to find out why she is not coming to school. Then, we found out that she is married to a man and went to another village far from here.”
“My daughter was only 14 and still in school. How could I let her go? Besides, her eldest sister also got married at a young age just because we are struggling to make ends meet."
Soon after, Sinishaw and the school director inform the local administration where Gebremariam Addisu, the social worker took over. “We identified where she lives and together with the local administration, we managed to rescue her. We also took the matter seriously and the marriage was interrupted immediately while the legal actions continue. Our first priority was to make sure that she is safe and back to school,” says Gebremariam.
A few weeks after the first semester started, Belaynesh went back to school. Her friends Samrawit and Tigist helped her not only to catch up with missed classes but also to come to terms with what has happened.
Gebremariam’s next step was to help rebuild Belaynesh’s family house which is falling apart. “Every time it rains the family suffers,” he says. “They had to cover their bed with a plastic sheet which is not dignifying at all.”
His case management report helps to shed light on the impoverished family’s situation. And members of the Bureau of Women and Social Affairs mobilized resources. With a close follow-up with Gebremariam, a new house is under construction for Belaynesh and her family.
“This is a new dawn for my family,” says Fantaye. “Just like a miracle. Every time I see the new house built next to my old one, I feel hopeful.”
In the Gambella region of Ethiopia, UNICEF supports the training and deployment of 47 social workers including Gebremariam. “The social workers have an invaluable role to help the community come together and prevent child marriage and other harmful practices,” says Frehiwot Melkame, UNICEF Child Protection Officer.
Belaynesh is happy that she is back to school. “My mother suffers a lot to provide for us. Had it not been for that, I wouldn’t have got married and quit school. I want to complete my education, get a job, and help her. That is my wish,” she adds.