“I was forced to marry a man twice my age in exchange for some cattle”

The sacrificial childhood of 13-year-old Enat, who was forced to leave school and marry a stranger to help her family cope with the drought in Ethiopia.

Raphael Pouget
“I was forced to marry a man twice my age in exchange for some cattle”
UNICEF Ethiopia/2022/Raphael Pouget
13 June 2022

[The first name has been changed]

Enat was a brilliant student, a young girl with a bright future until her life was turned upside down. In order to support her family, a victim of the drought, she was forced to marry an unknown man, more than 17 years her senior.  

“It happened two months ago, I didn't know anything about it, Enat recalls. “When I learned that the two families had already agreed, I protested, I begged, I cried... But there was nothing I could do.

The drought that is currently hitting the Dassenech woreda (district), has plunged thousands of families into extreme poverty: “Child marriage is prohibited and punished by law in Ethiopia. Despite this, we have seen a marked increase in the region in recent months, mainly due to the drought, observes Maldret Tarekgn, Head of Dassenech Woreda Women and Children Affairs Office, which works alongside UNICEF to prevent child marriages and help victims in the Dassenech woreda.

“When I learned that the two families had already agreed, I protested, I begged, I cried... But there was nothing I could do.”
UNICEF Ethiopia/2022/Raphael Pouget
“When I learned that the two families had already agreed, I protested, I begged, I cried... But there was nothing I could do,” Enat says.

“I am the first child in a family of seven siblings. Before the drought came, we lived well,” recalls Enat.My father had large livestock of more than 100 cattle. He would never have accepted to marry me off. Then, because of the lack of water and pasture, the animals died one after the other. That's when they had to resign themselves to leaving the village and finding me a husband.

“They had nothing left to feed us; It was the only solution. With my in-laws' wedding gift, a few cattle, they were able to buy maize and sorghum to feed the rest of my brothers and sisters.

This became a life-or-death situation.

Maldret Tarekgn, Head of Dassenech Woreda Women and Children Affairs Office

In the Dassenech woreda, it is traditional for marriage to be decided after negotiation between the two families. The husband's family offers a contribution to the bride's family, usually in the form of cattle, goats, or sheep. Once an agreement has been reached, the marriage can be celebrated. Conventionally, when the girl is too young, she remains in her parents' home until she reaches puberty. However, this practice has been compromised by the drought.

Maldret Tarekgn, Head of the Bureau of Women and Children Affairs
UNICEF Ethiopia/2022/Raphael Pouget
“Child marriage is prohibited and punished by law in Ethiopia. Despite this, we have seen a marked increase in the region in recent months, mainly due to the drought,” observes Maldret Tarekgn

“The pressure on families is such that they often cannot afford an extra mouth to feed, so the daughter leaves the parental home immediately, explains Maldret. “We have found that many families even agree to marry off their daughters to men with more modest circumstances such as fishermen. They give up the right to livestock in exchange for a supply of fish. This is a new way of surviving to cope with the drought. This became a life-or-death situation.

I don't want [my husband to go to jail], what would happen to my family?

Enat, 13

UNICEF, with the support of the local authorities have set up school clubs to raise awareness about child marriage and sexual and reproductive health (puberty, sexually transmitted diseases, menstruation, etc.). In addition to theoretical classes, the girls receive dignity kits consisting of soaps and sanitary napkins that help them stay in school when they are menstruating.

UNICEF, with the support of the Women and Children Affairs office, has set up school clubs to raise awareness about early marriage and sexual and reproductive health
UNICEF Ethiopia/2022/Raphael Pouget

“Thanks to the school clubs, we are raising awareness of child marriage among young girls," says Maldret. "We teach them to identify the warning signs and who to alert, whether they are directly involved or whether they are helping another girl in their community. When we have indications that a marriage with a minor is going to take place, we intervene immediately and follow up very rigorously with the girl to make sure that the marriage does not take place. But the main difficulty is in remote areas. The girls don't go to school, they're not educated and the union is often done discreetly.

“The hardest thing for me is that I had to stop school"
UNICEF Ethiopia/2022/Raphael Pouget

“The hardest thing for me is that I had to stop school because he [my husband] didn't allow me to continue. I like school, I want to become a doctor. My family has suffered a lot because of the lack of basic health services in the countryside. So, I would like to establish a clinic to be able to take care of my family and my community. But now I am only doing the household chores at home: cooking, cleaning, fetching water.”

“But I remain optimistic about the future,” Enat concludes. “I hope that God or someone can help me and give me a second chance to go back to school and become a doctor.”

UNICEF is working to expand life-saving child protection and GBV services to respond to the growing protection needs among vulnerable women and children across the Horn of Africa. This includes running community-based programmes to reduce the risks of violence, exploitation, abuse, and child marriage, and providing services to help women and children recover after violence.