12.02.09

Girls Fight Back Against Child Marriage

In rural Ethiopia, a U.N. program offers financial incentives to parents who promise not to marry off their pre-teen daughters. The Daily Beast’s Liz Goodwin talks to the new generation of empowered young women—and asks whether the change is sustainable.

In rural Ethiopia, a U.N. program offers financial incentives to parents who promise not to marry off their pre-teen daughters. Liz Goodwin talks to the new generation of empowered young women—and asks whether the change is sustainable.

Tsefaye Abese, an 11-year-old in the sixth grade, lives in the village of Dimbelmesno in Amhara, a rural region of Ethiopia where girls are married, on average, at age 15, and 80 percent of all girls are married before their 18th birthday. Tsefaye, wearing a bright blue shirt and clutching her notebook, is chatty and unafraid, talking to me comfortably through a translator about how much she likes going to school, and how she wants to become a doctor to help the people in Dimbelmesno.

Tsefaye’s life is by no means easy. She spends hours each day doing household chores like cooking, tending her family’s cows, and fetching water (half an hour each way), before she can spend a few stolen minutes each night on her homework. But the fact that Tsefaye is literate and attending school—and not betrothed—marks a seismic shift from the lives of her five sisters, who are only a few years older than her, and from the lives of most young women in Amhara.

Click Below To View Photos Of Girls In Ethiopia Who Are Fighting Back Against Child Marriage

The Berhane Hewan, or “Light of Eve,” program, funded by the U.N. Foundation in partnership with the Nike Foundation and administered by the UNFPA and local government partners, has set up camp in 36 villages in rural Ethiopia, and educates about 10,000 girls and women, including Tsefaye, in the hopes of preventing child marriage. My trip to Ethiopia was funded by the U.N. Foundation, which arranged visits to the villages.

The program’s leaders say its community-based approach explains its success. Local mentors lead biweekly “community conversations,” where the entire village discusses why child marriage is unhealthy for girls, singling out the spread of HIV/AIDS and the development of fistula during childbirth.

Another way the program gets communities on board is through incentives. After completing two years of schooling, a girl and her family receive a pregnant ewe, which helps offset the financial reasons that drive families to marry their daughters young. (The UNFPA is moving toward smaller incentives, like hens, for cost reasons.) The program also offers free school supplies that most families wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.

In one village, after only two years, girls under 15 were 90 percent less likely to get married than girls in a neighboring village who did not participate in the Berhane Hewan program. The rapid shift in attitudes has resulted in an eerie generational gap among the village’s women. In the two villages I visited, girls over age 18 seemed quiet and withdrawn, their faces harried, while girls only two years younger were chatty, confident, and unafraid to question their elders. The younger girls put on a play during a community conversation, acting out one family's decision to delay early marriage for its daughter. A little girl playing the head of the household wore a scarf around her head and held a big staff. She cracked everyone up—including the village’s elders sitting in the shade and clutching their own staffs—with her gruff, inflated sense of her own dignity.

Shasha Admas, a 20-year-old who was married at 15 and participates in the program’s “married girls club,” which teaches women skills like vegetable gardening, says it can be difficult to watch the younger girls, who seem to rule the village with their vivacity. “It’s a missed opportunity,” Shasha says. “I wish I could have gone to school with them. I look at them and I don't feel jealous exactly, but I feel really bad. That could have been me.”

The same gap is apparent in Tsefaye’s own family. She says her five older sisters were all married between the ages of 12 and 15.

“My sisters always feel it,” she says. “They always argue with my mother that if she had given them the opportunity to go to school... they wouldn’t be illiterate.”

But Tsefaye is already worried about hitting her own glass ceiling—the nearest high school is a prohibitive 21 kilometers away, and currently there are no plans to build one closer.

The UNFPA hopes to soon hand over the program to to their community and local government partners at each site. It won’t be easy, says Helen Amdemikael, assistant representative for the UNFPA in Ethiopia. In a meeting with the U.N., a local government official admitted the program had caused him a lot of problems, because villagers were now demanding more services from the government. Also, Amdemikael said the local government might not be able to provide incentives like the animals or school supplies. But the program has to be self-sustaining. “We can’t be in the community forever!” Amdemikael says.

The U.N. Foundation and a U.N. task force are working to invest in 16 more girl-focused programs around the globe, including in Guatemala, Malawi, and Liberia. If change happens as quickly as it has in these rural sites, a legion of educated, fiercely independent girls might soon emerge. The key will be providing opportunity to multiple generations—a task beyond what any temporary investment can accomplish.

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Liz Goodwin is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast. She has written for the New York Sun, GothamSchools, the Tico Times, and Fodor's Travel Guides.