In the Amhara region of Ethiopia, the rates of child marriage are among the highest in the world.
Nearly half of girls become brides before their 15th birthday.
Alemnesh Aemero barely escaped this fate. Her parents were finalizing Alemnesh's wedding arrangements when the girl was only 7 years old.
This is when the Berhane Hewan program stepped in.
A collaborative effort of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Population Council and the Ethiopia Ministry of Sport and Youth, Berhane Hewan is a program that provides Ethiopian girls with educations, mentorships and life skills training—all with the goal of delaying marriage.
In the case of Alemnesh, the Berhane Hewan team urged her parents to allow her to join the program and not marry at such a young age.
Today, Alemnesh is 13, not married, and excelling in seventh grade.
She says, “I want to complete my education and get employment before thinking about marriage. My intention is to work hard to help girls be protected from early marriage and other harmful traditional practices."
Tamara Kreinin, the executive director of women and population at the United Nations Foundation, spoke to TakePart about the high rates of child marriage in Ethiopia.
Girls are often married off at a young age she says, “because the fathers want to make an alliance with another family in the community."
One father Kreinin spoke with said, “When my daughter was three, I wanted to be closer to my friend and he had a 5-year-old son. We made an arrangement for the wedding, and I really didn’t think anything of it. When she was nine, I sent her off to live with my friend’s family.”
After Berhane Hewan was established in 2005, the father said to Kreinin, “Once I realized the impact on my daughter’s life, that I was stopping her education and threatening her life with an early pregnancy, I changed my behavior with the rest of my daughters and didn’t marry them off.”
When girls are married young, Kreinin explains, they are sent to live with the husband’s family. There, they are unlikely to receive an education and “end up doing household chores and in some instances really become the slave of the husband’s family.”
Berhanu Legesse, gender and advocacy program officer with the UNFPA, is on the ground managing the program in Ethiopia.
He and Abraham Gelaw, the communications officer of the UNFPA in Ethiopia, say girls are also married off because their parents “could get a handsome dowry as a result of their daughter’s marriage.” Also, there is a strong belief in the region that “if girls stay unmarried for long they are unlikely to remain virgin."
If a girl is not a virgin before marriage and someone in the community finds out, Gelaw and Legesse explain, “It is considered to be a huge disgrace” and the girl “could get lashes from her husband and returned to her parents.”
Girls in this region are married off to both older men and to boys around their age. If the girls become pregnant between the ages of 10 to 14, they are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women between the ages of 20 to 24. Girls aged 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die.
Many girls Alemnesh's age did not want to be married. Some felt their only option was to run away to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital.
The bus drops them off in one of the biggest slums in Africa, and handlers are there waiting for them.
Kreinin of the United Nations Foundation says the handlers “might seem well intentioned but often aren’t. They tend to broker the girls into domestic work or sex work. Domestic work is more likely than sex work."
The girls that enter into domestic work make about $6 per month, work 18-hour days and are often abused.
The U.N. Foundation knew that Berhane Hewan needed a component to educate the girls who escaped child marriage and headed to the city.
Called Biruh Tesfa, the program in Addis Ababa creates safe spaces for girls, gives them informal education, life skills, health education and mentors.
Mentors go door-to-door recruiting child workers into the program. These mentors, Kreinin says, must “negotiate with the employer and convince them to let the girls leave their workplace for a few hours a day.”
Part of the Biruh Tesfa program is a shelter for girls who have experienced violence.
Kreinin says, “I remember meeting a girl who had run away and ended up working for a family that was abusive to her. Getting into this program had completely altered her life.”
Once the girls are in the program, she says “they are so excited and proud to learn.”
Kreinin met girls as young as 10 years old who had left home instead of being married off.
Of the girls enrolled in the program, she says, “Several of them stood up and recited their poetry for me, showed me how they learned to use cell phones and how they learned to add and multiply and to read. What’s most striking to me is how resilient and ambitious they are and how much they have a sense of their own potential.”
The Berhane Hewan and Biruh Tesfa girls have a high rate of graduation from primary school and are making the leap into secondary school.
In a community she visited in the Amhara region, Kreinin asked the girls what they wanted to be when they grew up. “They shot up their hands”, she says. “One said a teacher, another said a doctor, another said a lawyer, and another said I want to be the prime minister. The girl said, ‘A girl can be the prime minister.”’
In the communities Berhane Hewan is in, Kreinin says, “The most significant outcomes are almost a complete eradication of child marriage.”
The program also reaches girls who are already married. Through married girls clubs and community conversation, married girls are delaying pregnancy. They have learned budgeting and have become more independent.
So far, 20,000 girls have been reached. The hope is to take the programs to scale, eventually reaching 8 million.
Berhane Hewan means "light for eve" and Biruh Tesfa mean "bright future." Not only do these programs give girls the power to choose their own paths, they also open the door to a world of possibilities.