Five Questions for Muluken Arefaine on addressing child marriage in Ethiopia

Date: 10 Oct 2012

Muluken Arefaine from ActionAid Ethiopia

Muluken Arefaine of ActionAid Ethiopia says that despite the adoption of a new Family Code in 2011, only 50 per cent of Ethiopians know the marriage age for both sexes is 18 and in some regions high rates of child marriage persist, particularly for girls. Photo credit: ActionAid Ethiopia/ Mekdes Teklemichael

What is the situation regarding child marriage in Ethiopia and more specifically in the districts where ActionAid is implementing the project “Enhancing the Legal Protection of Women and Girls from Gender based Violence?

Early marriage is one of the harmful traditions widely practiced in Ethiopian society. The practice involves marriage of girls who have not achieved full maturity and lack ability to control their sexuality. Ethiopia has a new Family Code enacted in 2001 that guarantees women equality in marriage and puts the legal age at marriage for both sexes at 18 years old compared to 15 in previous years. However, the practice still persists mainly due to poor enforcement and lack of knowledge, only 50 per cent of the population is aware of the existence of a legal age for marriage. Just to give you an example, in North Gonder zone (Amhara region), where ActionAid implements one of its Local Rights Programmes, the 2011 National Follow Up Survey of Harmful Traditional Practices showed that 44.2 per cent of girls are married before the age of 15.

The process and ritual practices vary widely across cultures and regions. A girl can be engaged at a very early age, between 4-5 years or even in-utero. Though the marriage ceremony could follow soon, the bride does not go to her bridegroom's home until she reaches the age of 10 to 13 years or younger. In some parts of the country, the practice is becoming increasingly covert and disguised with other types of festivities for fear of the legal accountabilities. Lavish gifts and enticing the girl child and her parents with promises of various opportunities are becoming common ways of persuasion these days.

How does this form of violence affect specifically the lives of the girls in those communities?

Girl victims of early marriage suffer from a multitude of physical, psychological, economic and social harms. As they haven't achieved full maturity, they are not ready psychologically and physically to be wives and mothers. Their first sexual experience is often forced and traumatic with pregnancy and childbirth resulting in complications that harm their health.

Most of the girls engaged in marriage at an early age are either deprived of their right to join school or obliged to drop out of school. Lack of education and the huge age difference between the girls and their husbands put them at a disadvantage in negotiating and bargaining with their spouses. As a result, they are often deprived of decision-making powers on household matters or their joint assets and property. Most girls married young also have poor awareness and access to family planning services and are often prevented by their spouses from using them. All these factors make them especially vulnerable to domestic violence.

Most girls who end up in divorce and are obliged to join their parents, especially those having a child, are often isolated and degraded by their family and the community. Some are forced to flee to towns where they end up as domestic house workers or commercial sex workers, becoming vulnerable to different forms of violence and abuse, and subsequent exposure to different sexually transmitted infections including HIV and AIDS.

What are, from your experience, the main drivers of child marriage and how should these be tackled?

Patriarchy and traditional norms and practices of discrimination are one of the main drivers. In most regions and cultures of the Ethiopian society, girls who pass the age of 15 unmarried are socially degraded and dubbed Komo Ker- an offending and humiliating Amharic term meaning “a person who is unwanted by any one and hopeless. For fear of this social stigma, parents often decide to give their children for marriage at a very early age.

Child marriage is practiced by many parents to prevent their children from having pre-marital sex which brings loss of virginity since a girl who has lost her virginity before marriage is very much disgraced and brings shame on her family. The worst of all shames comes if the girl who had sex before marriage gives birth to a child. The child born under such a situation is dubbed “Diqala- to mean rootless/fatherless child. Therefore, most parents wouldn't dare to live with such a demeaning social stigma; rather they prefer to give their child for marriage as early as possible.

Many poor families opt for marrying their underage girls with an intention of economic gain from the gifts given by relatives, neighbours and friends at the marriage ceremony and dowry. The practice serves also for family extension and continuation and social pride, as many parents want to see their children married at a very early age and have grand children before they pass away. Likewise, parents' pursuit of social fame and prestige which comes from organizing a lavish wedding festivity and inviting many people for this event is seen to be a key factor for child marriage. In some parts of the country, parents force their children to marry early for the purpose of strengthening ties with families thought to have influential clout, either in terms of wealth or social status.

What would be the main message that ActionAid Ethiopia would like to convey on this International Day of the Girl Child 2012?

Elimination of child marriages is not only essential for respecting the human rights of girls, but it is also essential to ensure positive development outcomes on a range of other areas, as it has multiplying effects. Eliminating child marriage enables girls to spend more years in school pursuing their education, which leads to better employment and income-earning opportunities.

Improved education and income of women has positive development outcomes for the future generation. Educated mothers improve the welfare of their children, in terms of education, health and nutrition and they also tend to have fewer children.

Eliminating child marriage is also key to reducing maternal mortality and reducing public costs in health care associated with complications that result from complications such as obstetric fistula.
Therefore, the international community should invest more resources to eliminate child marriages and design international frameworks to hold governments to account.

What is ActionAid doing to address child marriage through the project supported by the UN Trust Fund to end Violence against Women in Ethiopia? What are the most successful experiences to date?

With support from the UN Trust Fund, since 2009 ActionAid Ethiopia has worked to tackle child marriage and other forms of violence against women and girls in 10 districts of the country.

We have mobilized and organized women to stand up against early marriage, enhance their knowledge of their rights, the causes and consequences of violence and the legal provisions that help to tackle this violence. This has led to the creation of women's watch groups at village and district levels to take collective action in sensitizing the public and play a vigilant role in identifying arranged child marriages and facilitating the legal redress in collaboration with traditional and religious leaders, school clubs and local institutions. Since we started in 2009, 655 women have been trained and organized in 78 watch groups in 10 districts for the purpose.

Enhancing the role of men and boys has been crucial to our work, to help them challenge the religious and traditional beliefs that are used to justify early marriage. To our surprise, many leaders not only showed a change in their attitude but also started to play a key role as agents of change on tackling the issue in collaboration with the women watch groups. Since the inception of the UN Trust Fund project, trained leaders are not only engaged in sensitizing the community to ban child marriage, but they also play a vigilant role in verifying whether girls to be engaged have reached the right age before they give their religious blessing and approval.

We have also organized school sensitization events to enhance the role of boys as key change agents in tackling child marriage; the school clubs collaborate and engage with the school administration, watch groups and with the local police in identifying arranged child marriages, especially of girls who have been attending school, and raising awareness using role play, poems and harnessing the communication power of their mini-media channels.

Through the project, we have also built on the capacity of law-enforcement agencies to establish and equip Women and Child Protection Units in 10 district police stations and set Special Benches in four District Courts to take care of early marriage cases.