Sunday, May 18, 2008

Ethiopian child brides give themselves to tradition

Taken from the Times, UK, May 17, 2008
By Ross Appleyard

Wube-Enat cowers under a brightly embroidered blanket, peering out at the festivities going on around her. Bemused and bewildered, she has little understanding of why she is suddenly the focus of so much attention.

It is her wedding day; Wube-Enat is 10 years old. Her husband, Abebe, is 14.

For the first time in her life she has discarded her grubby smock and is dressed in traditional robes. “I like my new husband,” she says shyly. “But I don't really know him. In fact, I've never met him.”

The ceremony, in the remote Amhara region of Ethiopia, is conducted by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Child weddings are common in this region, although it is illegal to marry below the age of 18. The priest justified conducting the wedding by saying: “We marry the girls so young to ensure they are virgins. If she was older we wouldn't marry her - someone might have raped her.”

Tradition is paramount in this part of Ethiopia but practices such as child marriage can have terrible repercussions for the girls. In Amhara half of all girls are married before they are 15.

Most get pregnant as soon as it is physically possible. Simegne, 12, is eight months pregnant. “I am looking forward to giving my mother a grandchild,” she said. “But I would rather be back at school.”

Almost all the girls give birth at home without proper healthcare and with no way of reaching a hospital if anything goes wrong - which is often.

Achawache was 15 when she got pregnant. She spent 12 days in labour before eventually giving birth to a stillborn baby. She was left incontinent. The condition is caused during a prolonged labour leading to a hole forming between the bladder and the vagina. It was six years before she heard of a hospital that would treat her. Because she was incontinent, bus drivers refused to let her on board to get to the medical treatment she needed. In many cases the condition leads to the girl being ostracised and deserted by her husband. The Government is determined to stamp out child marriages and has increased the penalties for anyone arranging such a ceremony. Getting the message to areas such as Amhara is difficult.

“Part of the problem is that it happens in areas that are so remote communication is difficult,” Tedros Ghebreyesus, the Health Minister, said. “We are also battling against deep-rooted traditions.”

More than 90 per cent of the 77 million people in Ethiopia live in rural areas. The Orthodox Church has a massive influence over the communities. While the Christian hierarchy claims to want an end to child marriages, its priests - there are half a million in the country - still carry them out. “Most of these priests are also carpenters and farmers,” the Church's head, His Holiness Abune Paulos said. “It will take time for the message to filter down that they must not be a part of this tradition.”

The British-based charity Safe Hands for Mothers has been working with the UN Population Fund to increase awareness. “It is not for us to interfere with cultural traditions that go back hundreds of years but we must alert people to the dangers of early marriage,” Nancy Durrell McKenna, its executive director, said. “We are working alongside our partners to make films that show the physical and psychological effects of child marriage on these vulnerable young girls. Some of the stories we have come across are heartbreaking.”

For more information visit

No comments: