Alemtsahye Gebrekidan is the founder of the Former Child Wives Foundation, the Campaign Against Child Marriage in Ethiopia, a member of Girls Not Brides.
I grew up in Ethiopia but I never had a childhood or basic education.
I was 10 years old when I married a boy from my village. Where I come from it is tradition to marry your children early. People believe that the younger a girl marries, the more likely she will be a virgin, and the better the marriage will be.
I had no say in who, when or whether I wanted to marry. When I found out that my parents had arranged for me to marry, I was terrified. I had no idea what marriage meant or what having children entailed. I was just a girl who enjoyed going to school and playing with my friends.
Nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.
A 13-year-old widow with a one-month-old baby
Becoming a wife so young caused me a lot of pain and sorrow. At 13, I was a mother in an unhappy marriage, juggling childcare with other domestic chores and walking miles to find food and water.
Only a month after my first baby was born, his father was killed in the Ethiopian civil war and I became a widow. I was just 13, with no husband, no income or education and a child to care for. All I had was my mother for moral support.
When I turned 15, I was trafficked to Egypt to work as unpaid domestic servant. After one year I was trafficked to London to work as a domestic servant for the same family. They kept my passport, locked me in the house and left me without food or money whenever they went abroad.
I escaped and met someone who took me to the police. I was later referred to the immigration department where I applied for asylum. At first, immigration service tried to place me in a foster family, but I couldn’t bear the thought of moving into the home of strangers again. I refused; I wanted my independence.
And more than anything else, I wanted to study.
Pursuing an education after child marriage
Education is a powerful tool for change, no matter your age. It helps you define who you are; it empowers you to rise above the hurdles life has placed in front of you.
I had missed out on education but I was determined not to let that define me.
I had missed out on education but I was determined not to let that define me
After arriving to the UK, I started attending my first English classes. I was apprehensive but eager to learn. I can’t describe the exhilarating feeling of finally being able to read and write!
It would be several decades before I finished my education, however, and it was nearly impossible for me to secure a job during that time. I lacked the confidence, skills and experience employers wanted, all because I had been forced into marriage as a child.
The way forward: educating child brides like me
Still, education empowered me to realise my dream: to start my own organisation and support women and girls in the UK hurt by child marriage.
When it comes to culturally ingrained practices like child marriage, the act of speaking out can make a huge difference. That’s why I created the Former Child Wives Foundation: to let victims of child marriage know they weren’t alone.
I tell former child wives to come out and speak up. “There is no shame in being married as a child” I say, “It was never your choice”. Most of these women have missed out on everything in life; all they know is fear, violence and suffering.
To help them start anew, we give these women advice and support to raise their confidence and enable them to identify and deal with problems that affect them. Communications skills, for example, are key to access vital services like health, housing in their communities. And even basic writing skills can boost their chances of earning a stable income.
The experience of an early marriage always stays with you. I left Ethiopia and moved to the UK, but I can never leave behind the social, health and economic consequences of child marriage.
After years of separation, I finally went to Ethiopia and met my son. When we talk about his future, I often tell him “Don’t even think about marrying your children!” and I know he won’t. He knows all too well the price they would pay.
My hope now is to continue giving women and girls hope, support and the strength to turn their back on child marriage too.