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How educating girls prevents child marriage: Insights from Ethiopia

Students in the town of Dangila, Ethiopia, in November 2014. | Photo credit: Zayid Douglas | ICRW

This blog was originally published on ICRW’s blog “Gender Lens”

“Stop being friends with our daughter.” Hearing those words jarred me. The pace at which the girl sitting in front of me was speaking had increased dramatically only to come to a screeching halt when those words exited her mouth.

I was sitting in a dimly lit classroom in Dangila, Ethiopia listening to Asma* recall a story that involved her friend, who at age 15, was about to enter an arranged marriage. Concerned that her friend would stop going to school, and her contact with her friend would be limited once she was married, Asma sought to discuss this matter with her friends’ parents with the hope that the parents would decide not to go through the process.

Instead, her friend’s parents gave her an ultimatum: “Either change your thoughts about the (impending) marriage or stop being friends with our daughter.”

Designing a community-based programme

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time at a secondary school in Dangila, located in Ethiopia’s Amhara Region, where I met Asma. Her school is participating in a programme implemented by the Amhara Development Association (ADA) that aims to keep girls in school and prevent child marriage. 

Ethiopia has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, and in Amhara Region, where this work is being carried out, at least 40 percent of young women now age 20 to 24 were married before they turned 18. Frequently, early marriage is cited as the reason for which a girl has prematurely ended her education.

After launching a community-based reproductive health/education programme in the early 2000s, ADA noticed that girls in participating communities were still dropping out of school at alarming rates. The number of girls in these places that were being married off at a young age continued to rise, and youths’ reproductive health (RH) needs oftentimes remained unmet, despite the increased support.

Working with community members, ADA developed a school-based programme that would not only involve students and school staff, but also engage influential persons in the community to act as advocates – to make certain that girls are equipped with relevant, current information (including access to the appropriate reproductive health services) to support their decision-making as they transition into adulthood.

Ultimately, it is envisioned with this programme in place that more girls stay in school – successfully transitioning between grades, and fewer girls are married.

What have we learned so far?

This programme, funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, has been in operation now for almost five years and in 2013, was expanded to be carried out in nearly all of Amhara.

As evaluation partner, the International Center for Research on Women is working with ADA to better document the progress made through implementation while adding to the evidence base on what works to end child marriage – in this case, through school-based, scalable programming.

What are the key features of the programme?

  • To support implementation, ADA trains teachers and school administrators in pedagogical methods that promote a gender-sensitive environment, ensuring girls are actively taking on greater classroom roles and responsibilities and are afforded safe spaces in which they continue pursuit of their education.
  • ADA has also trained a teacher at each school to provide on-site counseling on reproductive health issues and referral services to better meet students’ needs.
  • Additionally, ADA works with the regional and local governments to establish a forum of community representatives – parents, community administrators –  whose primary responsibility is to raise awareness around early marriage and girls’ education, mobilise their fellow community members to act against early marriage, and monitor the programme’s activities at its various levels – the school, neighborhood (kebele), district (woreda), zone, and region.
  • The last key element of the programme involves ADA’s training of teachers and girl student leaders in life skills, reproductive health, and menstrual management, on the premise that they will then share this information with peers, family members and others in their communities.

Through the diffusion of this information, the programme aims to encourage an open dialogue about the risks of early marriage and shift social norms that promote early marriage in these communities.

Building girls’ confidence and knowledge

And we are beginning to see some positive impact. For instance, some girls who have participated in the programme noted that their knowledge of sexual and reproductive health practices – particularly around menstruation- has changed as a result of their engagement of this programme.

Once armed with this additional knowledge, some girls have grown more confident to request that their schools furnish infrastructural supports around menstruation such as changing rooms and (sex) separate toilets.

“By empowering girls with such vital information, they will become more confident, assertive, learn how to set personal goals and know where to go for support when facing an issue such as early marriage.”

“The goal here is that by empowering girls with such vital information, they will become more confident, assertive, learn how to set personal goals and know where to go for support when facing an issue such as early marriage,” Maru Wondifraw Hailu, the ADA Project Coordinator, noted.

How Asma is making a difference

Asma is a student trainer, a recognised leader who has been trained by school personnel on issues such as puberty and sexually transmitted infections, menstrual management – specifically the construction of homemade sanitary napkins, and life skills such as goal setting, time management and negotiation.

Whether she is in or outside of school, Asma readily shares information on the benefits of keeping a girl in school and avoiding child marriage and risky behaviors such as drug abuse/use, with her peers, family members, and other adults.

While Asma’s story is disconcerting, it does have a happy ending. Although she was unable to solely convince her friends’ parents to call off their young daughter’s marriage, Asma used her training and reached out to her own parents and teachers about the issue.

Community members and the kebele administration – some of whose staff have been trained by ADA on the risks associated with child marriage – organised an intensive mediation with the parents to remind them of the tragic consequences of early marriage and the benefits of keeping their daughter in school. Ultimately, the wedding was called off.

Asma’s story highlights how critical it is to engage community members to shift harmful gender norms and ensure that girls in their community have the ability to make informed decisions about their lives.

“Now when I see her, I feel happy. Her parents are happy that the marriage did not go on. My friend is so happy (now)”, Asma explained to me. Asma plans to continue sharing the information that she has learned from this programme beyond her community, even after graduation. “I want to work in women’s issues and be enabled to protect girls to avoid ‘bad practices,’” she assured me.

*Asma is not her real name.