Child brides, invisible and voiceless: no more!

Photo credit: Josh Estey | CARE

Dr Feven Tassew blogs about the lessons she has learned from TESFA, meaning “hope” in Amharic, a programme that supports adolescent married girls in Ethiopia and provides them with sexual and reproductive health knowledge. 

In my many years working in public health, I have noticed we tend to design programs based on different assumptions derived from our existing understanding of root causes of development challenges.

However, the TESFA project really challenged this “expert” attitude we tend to have as program implementers. TESFA created opportunities for child brides to engage in peer learning on sexual and reproductive health; participate in social, economic and political life, and to teach us about their vulnerabilities.

Over half of the girls in Amhara, Ethiopia, become child brides by the time they turn 15

Girls in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, not unlike many other places in the world, are raised to become “good wives” and by their 15th birthday over half of them are married off – most often to men who are much older.

Marrying girls off before they reach puberty could be considered a common way for parents and communities to “protect” and “legitimize” girls’ sexuality as they enter puberty and is closely linked to the practice of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) – over 75% of the girls we worked with reported being subjected to FGC.

Once married, girls become mostly invisible and their particular needs are rarely acknowledged within their communities.

Once married, girls become mostly invisible and their particular needs are rarely acknowledged within their communities. A married girl is usually pulled out of school and sent to live with her husband and in-laws, away from her own family and peer networks – among the girls we worked with 87.5% had not completed primary school, and 10% reported having no friends. Over half of the girls experience some form of psychological, physical or sexual violence.

When the TESFA project was launched, a government official commented “early marriage is no more, the project will fail to find 5000 girls married before the age of 18.”  One religious leader questioned “Does CARE now run out of beneficiaries to consider working with these girls?” That’s how low the status of child brides is within their communities.

Hearing such things validated our plans to proactively engage the community as part of our intervention strategy – this involved the formation of community groups composed of leaders, religious leaders, father, husbands, and mother in laws and creating space for them to critically reflect on socio cultural practices so they could become a support group for the girls instead of being barriers and skeptics.

Changing child brides’ lives: TESFA’s impact

After 3 years, we have found some very positive changes in the lives of the girls we have been working with. The girls have shared with us how they now have increased partner intimacy and improved communication and more equitable gender roles in their households, all of which were addressed in the program using different approaches.

We also have found improvements in specific economic and sexual and reproductive health outcomes and reductions in physical, psychological, and sexual violence in their lives. Most of the girls have also negotiated to go back to school to continue their education.

Working with child brides and community members has actually led to some communities organizing themselves to prevent at least 180 child marriages.

One particularly exciting result is to see how working with child brides and community members has actually led to some communities organizing themselves to prevent at least 180 child marriages.

For example, an 18 year old project participant, married at the age of 15 and already a mother of one was faced with a challenge of having to see her 14 year old sister, a 7th grade student, being prepared to be married. Determined to help her younger sister, who was pleading for her support to stop the arrangement, she reached out to her parents, community leaders and the local authority, and finally manage to stop the arranged marriage.

Misaye, the young sister, is now in school, pursuing her dream to continue her education.

Working on the TESFA project has been a tremendous learning experience for me, making it clear that child marriage is probably the most systematic form of violence on girls.

It reinforces hierarchy both on the lives of girls and on that of the children they are made responsible to raise, perpetuating an unfortunate reality that ensures the vicious cycle of poverty. Child marriage is an issue of rights, and of humanity, and it is not an option to ignore it while we work to eradicate gender violence.

Child marriage is an issue of rights, and of humanity, and it is not an option to ignore it while we work to eradicate gender violence.

 

For the TESFA project, CARE partnered with the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), Organization for Rehabilitation and Development in Amhara, and the Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia to reach more than 5000 child brides in the Amhara region of Ethiopia.

To find out more about CARE’s work on child marriage, visit CARE.orgTo learn more about TESFA, visit ICRW’s website

During the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence check out an exhibit of Photovoice materials from TESFA participants in the main lobby of USAID’s Ronald Reagan Building, or the online version here.