Ending early child marriage: “I wanted to go back to school”

Eleni (right) and her mother

Twelve-year-old Eleni (not her real name) was so excited to be receiving new clothes from her parents that she didn’t ask why until it was too late.

Dressed in a new t-shirt and skirt she was greeted liked a princess by family and neighbours in her village in Ethiopia. As the sun rose higher in the sky, guests started to arrive at her house, goats were slaughtered to feed the gathering crowd, and she was brought before her soon-to-be husband for the first time.

Shock and fear filled Eleni as she realised she was about to be married.

“I was scared and angry because no one told me I was going to be married or that I would be leaving my family behind for another village,” says Eleni.

“I didn’t have time to think about how being married would impact my life and dreams. I didn’t even have the chance to talk about it with my parents. The ceremony was over before I knew what had happened.”

Child marriage is commonplace in Ethiopia

Two in every five girls are married before their 18th birthday and nearly one in five girls are married before the age of 15. In the Amhara region, where Eleni lives, the picture is even bleaker – almost half of all girls are married by the age of 15.

Early marriage is a deep rooted tradition in many Ethiopian communities, perpetuated by poverty, a limited chance for education and economic opportunities, and social customs that limit the rights of women and girls.

“I am the youngest in my family, and my parents were getting older and finding it difficult to raise enough money to pay for school,” says Eleni.

“They wanted someone to look after me and thought my life would be better if I had a husband. They didn’t think to question how early marriage would affect my life.”

“I wanted to go back to school”

Eleni says her husband and his family treated her well, but married life at age 12 wasn’t for her. “I missed my family; I was tired all the time from doing a lot of housework and I wanted to go back to school.”

Eleni was also worried about getting pregnant – but was able to join a support group for married girls run by CARE under our TESFA project.

TESFA means ‘hope’ in Amharic. The project aimed to bring positive change in the economic, sexual and reproductive health of adolescent girls (aged 14-19) who are either married, divorced or widowed.

In addition to the support groups, other activities included a weekly radio programme on child marriage, large community meetings, and recruiting and training members of the community such as parents, religious leaders, health workers and teachers on the dangers of early marriage and how they can help prevent it from happening in their village.

The confidence to change her life

After attending the support group, Eleni says: “I spoke with my parents about the dangers of child marriage, such as getting pregnant before my body was ready to have a baby, and that there was a higher risk of getting HIV from my husband. Then I told them how education was the best way for me to help my parents live a better life.”

Her mother recalls the moment Eleni told her parents she wanted to get a divorce. “At the beginning it was very difficult for us to understand why she wanted a divorce, but after a long discussion we accepted her wish and permitted her to tell her husband,” she says.

Eleni and her parents then spoke with her husband who agreed to the divorce. “He understood my dream to return to school,” says Eleni.

Achieving her dreams

That was one year ago, and today the fourteen-year-old teenager is in grade 10 and putting her energy towards studying her favourite subject – biology – instead of preparing food, collecting water and looking after in-laws. 

As well as going to school, Eleni still attends the TESFA support group meetings and is saving money through a village savings and loan programme to help fund her dream of becoming a nurse.

I want to get a good job so that my family can have a better life, and when I’m older I’ll chose a husband that will help me achieve this goal,” she says. 

Reclaiming control over her life

Eleni’s experience and positivity has had a ripple effect on members of her village. Her mother and father are now vocal opponents of child marriage and speak to other parents about the consequences of the practice. And Eleni’s story has given married girls in the village the confidence to speak up, get support and reclaim control over their lives. 

“I am so happy the TESFA project came to my village. Without it my life would never have been my own, but now I have a better chance at being happy,” says Eleni.

CARE’s TESFA project ran from May 2010 to October 2013.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.