Supporting child brides in Ethiopia

Robyne Hayes | International Center for Research on Women

Enana recalls her parents bathing her that day many years ago to get ready for, they told her, a holiday celebration. She doesn’t remember how old she was.

“I was a child,” Enana said. “I didn’t even know how to clean myself.”

A child, but ready – at least in her parents eyes – to be a bride.

That day, Enana married a much older man she didn’t know. And with her nuptials, she became another statistic in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, where the rate of child marriage is among the highest in the world. She became another young girl whose opportunities and childhood were cut short. Another wife and eventually a mother – but not yet an adult – whose life, like many child brides worldwide, often remains invisible to others.

When we met briefly a couple of years ago, Enana said she was 17, but she wasn’t sure. She figured her husband was around 30 years old. They had a son, who was four at the time.

I was a child, I didn’t even know how to clean myself

Enana

Enana was still upset about that day so many years ago, and the life she was forced into. As we sat together in the grass, Enana barefoot, clutching her knees to her chest, she told me how disappointed she is in her parents for marrying her off to “that old man.” I was struck by how vocal she was about it – no other girl I had met outwardly expressed such irritation with her parents’ decision.

“You’re supposed to be my parents,” Enana said. “You’re supposed to protect me. Even today, I still get angry thinking about it.”

But at the time, Enana was also part of a groundbreaking program that worked to equip her with skills to manage the life she didn’t choose and, importantly, to gain – perhaps for the first time – a kernel of control over her future.

TESFA, “Hope” in married adolescent girls’ lives

Called “Towards Economic and Sexual Health Outcomes for Adolescent Girls” or TESFA, the program provided 5,000 child brides in Ethiopia’s Amhara region with unprecedented opportunities to learn about sexual and reproductive health as well as how to earn an income and save money. Girls who participated in the program ranged from 10 to 19 years old.

Funded by the Nike Foundation and carried out by CARE-Ethiopia, TESFA sought to mitigate the effects of child marriage. It also gave married girls an opportunity to participate in the social, economic and political life of their families and communities. That’s noteworthy: Child brides – who number 70 million worldwide – are among the most marginalized members of society.

The TESFA program was evaluated by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), which employed innovative methodologies – including the Photovoice strategy – to understand not only if TESFA’s approach worked, but how and why.

While a significant amount of research has explored the causes and consequences of child marriage in Ethiopia and elsewhere, little investigation and few programs have focused strictly on girls who are already married. TESFA – which means “hope” in Amharic – did. The program remains one of a few efforts globally that zeroed in on married girls and how best to support them as they transition to adulthood.

Improving the lives of child brides

ICRW found that TESFA, which ran for three years, helped to significantly better many aspects of the girls’ economic and social lives. Their health also improved. Among the changes researchers recorded were:

  • Large gains in communication between the young wives and their husbands
  • Decreased levels of gender-based violence
  • Improved mental health among participating girls
  • Increased investment in productive economic assets, such as small businesses and agricultural supplies
  • Improved knowledge and use of sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning

Critically, TESFA aimed to empower young married girls to advocate for themselves within the confines of a life they did not opt for.

By doing so, these girls are likely to have a better chance of not only growing into healthy, confident, productive women, but also into mothers who one day may stand against their own daughters being forced to marry.

They and their communities could ultimately have a role in eliminating the harmful practice of child marriage – at least in their corner of the world.

Changing the course for adolescent girls worldwide

The goals of the TESFA program also are reflective of the core purpose of ICRW’s Turning Point Campaign. Launched in 2012, the campaign is focusing resources on research and programs that examine and address the unique challenges adolescent girls face as they move into adulthood. Ultimately, the campaign aims to change the course for adolescent girls worldwide. Girls like Enana.

Enana’s and other girls’ early marriages cause a jolting transition from being a child to shouldering adult responsibilities. Many young wives I met while in Ethiopia had dropped out of school soon after they wed. Most described daily routines of rising early, fetching water and firewood, cooking, cleaning, and minding children, if they had them. The girls tended to everything alone, with little or no help.

Often in the Amhara region, child brides live with their in-laws or between the in-laws and their own family for a period of time. Adults usually decide when a young wife is ready to permanently join her husband or to consummate their marriage. The transition often happens when a girl reaches puberty and her physical changes become noticeable. ICRW found that on average, girls in the TESFA program had their first sexual experience at 13 years old. Many didn’t even understand what was happening.

Enana’s story

Enana was helping her in-laws prepare dinner one night when her mother-in-law told her she would be staying with her husband that evening. It was a frightening experience that caused her to run back to her parents’ home. “I went to my parents house believing they would protect me,” but, Enana said, “they beat me and sent me to my husband.”

She kept running away and being sent back. She said she felt as if she didn’t have any good options between her family and her husband. However, “In time, I got used to it,” she told me.

“Now I’m grown up and (her parents) call me for holiday festivities and they come to my house to have the coffee ceremony.”

But she’s still angry. She relentlessly reminds her parents of their decision so many years ago and her disappointment in them. They tell her to let the past be in the past.

You’re supposed to be my parents. You’re supposed to protect me.

Enana

Things for Enana appeared to have been shifting though, after becoming involved with TESFA. In particular, she told me her relationship with her husband is better. She said she’s now able to articulate her needs and desires to him – and negotiate what she thinks is best for herself and her family. She told me that her husband now helps around the house, too.

Enana credits such changes to TESFA’s presence in her community. Indeed, ICRW researchers found along with what they set out to study, the program also yielded a few unexpected, yet powerful outcomes. Among them, husbands began taking on responsibilities traditionally reserved for wives, including childcare and cooking. Some girls returned to school to continue their education. And most notably, community members in the areas where TESFA unfolded prevented more than 70 child marriages from taking place. Although this was not a goal of the program, this particular aftereffect provided promising evidence that TESFA’s messages about the consequences of child marriage resonated with communities.

TESFA project has brought back the years I lost in oppression. It’s a good feeling

Enana

Being involved in this program also significantly boosted the girls’ confidence, according to TESFA staff. They attributed this not only to the “life skills” training girls receive, but also to the mere fact that the girls were included in a program that was highly regarded in their communities. In the process, others started to see young wives like Enana differently. They were valued. Respected.

It’s unclear whether these shifts will last over time, as the girls grow into women. But for Enana, at the very least she may now have more say over her life’s path and the ability to make it happen.

“TESFA project has brought back the years I lost in oppression,” she told me. “It’s a good feeling.”