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Eyes that haunt: Life as seen by an Ethiopian child bride

Photo credit: David Snyder/ICRW

Tigist was just 15 when she left school and married her husband Bekele. Gillian Gaynair from the International Center for Research on Women meets them in their home in northern Ethiopia and discovers that attitudes towards child marriage in this remote and beautiful region are beginning to change.

Tigist greets us with a shy smile and a soft salaam. She’s one of more than a dozen child brides – some of whom say they were forced to marry as young as 6 or 10 – I’ve met in the last couple of days in Ethiopia’s central highlands. I came here to better understand what the girls’ lives are like and learn about their marriages as well as talk to others about the practice and whether it’s changing.

Ethiopian law officially bans marriage under the age of 18—a critical first step in improving girls’ lives. Changing age-old customs, however, is also necessary if the practice is to end. But altering entrenched traditions, as history has shown, can be an arduous journey.

I am surrounded by extremely remote yet mesmerizingly beautiful villages of the South Gondar zone of the Amhara region. Fields that grow wheat, barley and teff – which make injera, Ethiopia’s traditional spongy, sourdough-like flat bread – are now brown and dry. Each day, men and boys wearing the traditional white shawl draped around their upper bodies walk through stony fields, herding cattle, guiding sheep, whipping donkeys carrying cargo. Women and girls snake up mountainsides, hunched over as they carry their babies or water jugs on their backs.

Girls here live excruciatingly isolated lives. Most told me they didn’t know they were getting married until a few days before or the day of the ceremony. They all described violent first sexual encounters with the husband their parents had chosen. Those who were mothers didn’t understand that they were pregnant until someone else told them the kicking they felt in their bellies was a baby.

Their words and faces keep playing in my head: “I was so scared.” “I didn’t know what was happening; I was just a child.” “They told me it was my duty.”

Tigist’s story is no different. But there is something haunting in her eyes that I saw on the first day we met. I saw it again today, when we walked up the mountain to spend more time with her.

She invited us inside her home and placed a small blue tarp-like material on the ground for us to sit on. She immediately started tending to the fire to prepare shiro, a spiced chickpea-based stew, which she served later with yogurt and injera. Her baby daughter was constantly at her side.

Tigist married Bekele two years ago when she was 15 and he was 26. She went to school until the 4th grade and tells me she “very much” misses that time, when she used to learn new things and play with friends. I asked her if she thinks she could return to her studies. “I have a home and a child,” she said through an interpreter, “so I can’t go back to school now.”

But customs do seem to be slowly shifting here. And maybe the trajectory of Tigist’s life will eventually shift, too.

In addition to the law, a national awareness campaign about the consequences of child marriage seems to be infiltrating even very remote areas. And for girls who’ve already married, ICRW and CARE-Ethiopia have partnered to help improve their quality of life by arming them with information about their health and about saving money.

We got married early. We’re suffering from disadvantages and we don’t want the next generation to go through that.

Bekele, Tigist's husband

Bekele thinks attitudes towards long-standing traditions here are indeed changing.

“We got married early,” he told me. “We’re suffering from disadvantages and we don’t want the next generation to go through that.”

He said there are lots of problems with child marriage: If the girl isn’t old enough, she can’t maintain a home. She can’t have discussions with her husband. “She needs to be an adult.”

I asked Tigist what kind of problems she thought early marriage presented. She immediately looked to the ground and was quiet. Bekele gently encouraged her to share her thoughts.

She gave that shy smile, and then: “It hurts to sleep with a man before you’re old enough to do so.”

Then she looked away. Her expression was distant.

I still don’t know what her eyes were saying.

*Because child marriage is illegal in Ethiopia, we have changed all names in the article to protect the individuals’ identities.