Just a month after Ethiopia reported its first case of Coronavirus, schools were closed and students were told to stay at home. The intention was clear. It was implemented to protect them from the deadly virus. Unfortunately, some of the students were confronted with other major challenges at home. Some girls have been forced to get married, while a considerable numbers were raped and a lot were sexually abused. An unfortunate few also got pregnant after being raped by family members. EBR’s Kiya Ali reports.
When the government closed schools in a bid to curb the spread of the Coronavirus two months ago, a grade six student in Amhara State, Wedalat Manabo thought she would only stay at home for a few months. However, her prolonged stay in the house prompted her family to push her towards marriage at the tender age of 14. Although she declined to accept their proposal hoping to realize her dream of becoming a lawyer, her parents gradually became more serious about the issue.
Wedalat, since her childhood, always longed to defeat the century’s long human rights violation, injustice and harmful traditional practices in her locality. Crushing those dreams, her family forced her to get married to a man who is 17 years older than her. There are a lot of such stories in Ethiopia. Early marriage is part of the everyday life of Ethiopian girls, especially those in rural areas. Alarmingly, the number of girls who are being forced to get married at an early age has soared of late as schools have been closed on account of the spread of the Coronavirus. “Over the past two months alone, Amhara Regional State Women, Children and Youth Affairs office identified 1,117 attempts of child marriage, of which 234 were already married before our assessment. This is higher than the number of girls who got married in the last nine months before the shutdown of schools,” said Selamawit Alemayehu, Deputy Head of Amhara Children and Youth Affairs Office.
Ethiopia decreed child marriage an illegal act and categorized it as a violation of human rights. The family law of the federal and regional governments set 18 years as the minimum legal age of marriage with a procedurally tight arrangement of an exception, allowing individuals to marry at 16. In fact, this is clearly put on Article 34 of the FDRE constitution that states ‘marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.’ This is further cemented in Article 648 of the Criminal code of Ethiopia under ‘Early Marriage.’
Studies conducted by governmental and non-governmental organizations indicate that despite the legal limits, nearly half of Ethiopian women are married before the age of 18. The most recent one is the Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS) of 2016. The nationwide study discovered that 40.3Pct of women aged between 20 and 24 got married before the legal age of 18; whereas, 14.1Pct of them were married before the age of 15.
The World Economic Forum indicated that Coronavirus could put four million girls at risk of child marriage without major efforts in place. The forum identified Ethiopia among the top five countries likely to have higher prevalence of child marriage now. Risks of child marriage are exacerbated by the fact that schools are closed; hence, structures close to female students including teachers and organizations working on combating child marriage are no longer accessible.
At the root of child marriage is poverty and hetro-patriarchal gender norms that treat women as inferior beings. “The worth of a woman is attached to her ability to reproduce; hence, delaying that social function is seen as a waste of potential. In light of this, sending girls to school is not considered as a desirable investment in our society and keeping them at home is seen as a major financial burden,” says Helina Birhanu, a Gender and Legal Expert.
If more efforts are not going to be exerted to end child marriage, 150 million girls are expected to get married before turning 18 in 2030, according to UNICEF. In Ethiopia, UNICEF further stated, progress would need to be six times faster to eliminate child marriage by 2030, and 10 times faster for elimination by 2025.
“The increase in the number of child brides following school closures shows that there is lack of awareness on the danger and detrimental effects of child marriage among the society,” Selamawit noted.
One of the negative consequences of child marriage is teen pregnancy. Approximately 12 million girls aged between 15 and 19 years and at least 777,000 girls of less than 15 years give birth each year around the world. Furthermore, noted the World Health organization, at least 10 million unintended pregnancies occur each year among adolescent girls aged between 15 to 19 years in the developing world.
Wedalat has already joined these group girls as she is now pregnant. “We find it hard to interfere and break all child marriages occurring in different parts of the country since some of the girls become pregnant by the time the federal as well as regional offices find out their cases,” explained Communications Director of the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs, Adenew Abera,.
Shouldering the responsibility of raising a child despite being children themselves, complications during pregnancy and child birth are the leading causes of death for 15 to 19 year old girls. If health centers are not available nearby, compounded by their physical immaturity, prolonged labor may lead to obstetrics fistula.
“Although the immediate cause of obstetric fistula is prolonged labor due to absence of health centers nearby, which is very common in rural parts of Ethiopia, there are improvements. The physical immaturity of girls under the age of 18 will exacerbate the situation and make them more vulnerable to obstetric fistula,” said Teshome Tafesse (PhD), Information and Communication Manager of Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia. “Eclampsia, puerperal endometritis and systematic infections are additional health problems that are caused by child marriage,” he further explained.
Various researches also show that the chance of contracting sexually transmitted diseases is very high among child brides. The psychological pressures of being a child bride can be linked to short or long-term health risk behaviors. Reactions can range from concerns about pregnancy to anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
In addition, adolescent pregnancy and child bearing often force girls to leave school and deprive them of the right to access education. As a result, child marriage systematically disempowers women by jeopardizing their independence and future employment opportunity, taking away their agency and making them vulnerable to domestic violence.
Child marriage also has a detrimental effect on economic growth and development of the country since it stops girls from contributing to social and economic development and support the health and productivity of their families and communities as a whole.
For instance, ending child marriage in Ethiopia would boost the economy by at least 1.5Pct. If every Ethiopian girl completed secondary school, it would add up USD646 million to the economy every year. In addition, if a girl delayed pregnancy until she became an adult, the Ethiopian economy would gain 15Pct GDP over her lifetime. In Ethiopia, the value of the additional wages that women would have earned in 2015, if they had not married early is estimated at USD1.6 billion in purchasing power parity, according to the World Bank.
As cited in the National Roadmap to End Child Marriage and FGM/C, the World Bank study also shows that Ethiopia’s population would have shrank by one percent, if child marriage and early childbirths were eliminated by 2019. This would have significant impacted national budgets and welfare. If child marriage and early childbearing had ended in 2014, the estimated annual benefit in the subsequent year (2015) would have been equivalent to USD117 million, increasing to USD4.9 billion by 2030. So to make this reality, experts say the legal punishment for child marriage should be rigorous than ever.
Currently, a person who marries a girl between 13 and 18 is punished with a maximum of three years imprisonment. If she is below 13, the maximum years of imprisonment will be 7 years. Plus, the enforcement of the law is not satisfactory. In Amhara region, for instance, among the reported 1,117 cases of child marriage since the outbreak of the Coronavirus, 534 were interrupted and only 104 are held accountable.
The factors that lead to child marriage could be poverty, insecurity as marriage is seen as a source of respect and protection for women, underestimating the importance of sending girls to school and societal pressure.
Helina recommends that regional governments put a strong informal social chain involving stakeholders at grassroots level and parallel formal legal machineries to work. “Schools can also play a big role in creating a follow up mechanism and providing incentives to households that report any early marriage. Equally important for the government is to track down cases and remain transparent,” Helina concludes.EBR
9th Year • July 1 – July 15 2020 • No. 88