I have just returned from Amhara in northern Ethiopia, where I travelled with Mary Robinson and Archbishop Tutu through a beautiful landscape of red soil, small farms and rolling green hills. It is the beginning of the rainy season and Amhara’s 19 million people, who rely almost entirely on agriculture, are hoping it will be a good year.
Amhara is very poor: it is served by few roads, children rarely get more than a few years of education and often walk many miles to school. It also has one of the highest rates of child marriage on earth. 80 per cent of girls in Amhara are married by the time they are 18, half by the age of 15. The most common age for a girl to marry is 12.
We went to Amhara to learn more about child marriage – an issue that we as Elders believe deserves far greater attention than it currently receives.
In a tiny village, sitting in the shade of tall trees, we met young women in their late teens and early twenties, some of whom had married as young as 8 or 10, and had their first children at 13 or 14. For almost all of them, marriage was not a day of happiness. It was a day that they stopped going to school, began living with a man they had never met and having sex whether they wanted to or not.
Child marriage is deeply embedded in the social customs of Amhara, where most people are Orthodox Christians. For thousands of years, families have married girls young to protect their honour – sex before marriage is seen as extremely shameful. A girl who is not married by 18 would be viewed with suspicion by her community – and her father’s status would almost certainly suffer.
Yet things are changing. There is official support in Ethiopia for the elimination of more than 100 ‘harmful traditional practices’ including child marriage, marriage by abduction and female genital cutting. The Orthodox Church and the Islamic leadership in Ethiopia also publicly oppose child marriage – although getting the message out to local communities is taking time.
As a result, the girls and women we met were taking part in weekly community conversations on issues affecting their lives – sexual health, gender equality and the legal rights of girls and women not to be married before 18. The discussions are having a noticeable impact. By providing information and a space for informed dialogue, supported by local community workers and mentors, these women are gaining greater self confidence and better health. They want things to be different for their daughters.
Girls at the Berhane Hewan project in Amhara, northern Ethiopia
For younger girls, a project called Berhane Hewan encourages them to stay in school, know their rights, and delay marriage. Most importantly, these conversations bring in the whole village – husbands, parents, priests and local community leaders. Change like this cannot be achieved through legislation alone or by trying to persuade one family at a time. Social change requires openness, it must involve the whole community and allow people to develop their knowledge and make choices. It also takes time.
The Berhane Hewan project has been running since 2004, and at its peak involved around 12,000 girls who are now role models for their communities. The Meserete Hiwot project, educating married adolescents about health issues, has reached about 142,000 girls and women. A newer husbands programme is engaging men in conversations about gender equality – starting with suggestions that they address their wives by name.
These projects are encouraging and are delivering concrete results – but they reach only a tiny fraction of the population. The projects we visited take place in just three of Amhara’s 166 districts. As always, the challenge is to scale up these kinds of initiatives to reach much larger numbers of people.
Most importantly, we need to overcome the idea that something called ‘tradition’ cannot be changed. We have seen that people who are given information, a safe space and time for discussion can embrace change. We know that you can improve people’s happiness, productivity and prosperity if all members of the community are able to reach their full potential – and that girls and women are essential to successful development.