Alemu Abegaz is Deputy Director of the Ethiopian NGO WCAT, one of Her Choice’s 27 local partners in the field and local partner of alliance member Stichting Kinderpostzegels Nederland. He strongly supports the community-led approach of Her Choice. But is this still possible, in these COVID-times and how does he see the future? Alemu believes that girls themselves can play a big role: ‘When girls are empowered, they can decide for themselves whether, when, and with whom they marry.’
Are you still able to carry out your work during these times, and how has the pandemic changed this?
‘We are still working, but it is challenging. The pandemic limited our intervention activities at grassroots level; our mobility to carry out community level workshops, trainings and meetings are hampered and the closure of schools since the 16th of March affected school-based interventions. The wider public has low awareness on physical distancing, wearing face masks, hand washing and staying at home. We, therefore, re-planned some activities to prevent, protect and aware vulnerable girls, mothers and other community members on COVID-19. Accordingly, we’re providing materials such as for hygiene and sanitation, menstrual pads, soaps, sanitizers, infrared thermometers and face masks.
Because of restrictions by the state of emergency, public gatherings and visits to girls have been limited by the project staff and me. However, the social workers, volunteers and task force members who are active in the Her Choice programme do see them and their family, mostly on individual basis at home. They support the girls whenever they have trouble in studying at home. In urban areas, children have some access to online, television and radio lessons. For instance, my daughter could access online lessons. However, children in rural areas have no access to online classes or through television; but they occasionally listen to radio broadcasts.’
How big is the problem of child marriage in your country and what are the main reasons, you think?
‘The prevalence of child marriage in Ethiopia is 40%; 4 out of 10 young women are married before age 18; a very high percentage even when compared to the prevalence of 36% in Eastern Africa. In absolute numbers, Ethiopia is home to 15 million child brides where 6 million marry before age 15 and 9 million marry before 18 years old. The average age of marriage is 17.1 years for girls and 23.7 for boys in 2016.
I think there are various reasons for this. Some researchers state that the drivers are related to gendered social norms implying stigma and discrimination associated with unmarried girls. Child marriage practices are deeply rooted in the culture, religion, norms and values of Ethiopian society. I see it as a misperception of girls: the existence of patriarchal values and attitudes and the desire to control women’s sexuality and decision-making power are attached to girls and women.
The second is an economic reason: poverty is a root cause in Ethiopia. When a girls’ family is not well to do, they want their daughter to get married as soon as possible. Thirdly, there are big institutional barriers: girls have no access to education, health and information services to inform them about their SRHR. And there is a big law enforcement gap. Because Ethiopia is a male dominant society, harmful traditional practices such as child marriage and FGM are deeply rooted in society.
I believe that girls themselves also can play a big role: often they themselves want to marry, because of economic reasons or because they want to be a good daughter to their family. The empowerment of girls is key to end child marriage. Only when they’re empowered, they can choose for themselves whether, when and with whom they marry. Her Choice could increase girls’ life skills and knowledge of SRHR for ultimate decision-making power to say no to child marriage.’
What aspect of the Her Choice programme is the most powerful to help tackling child marriage and why?
‘We see that the prevalence of child marriage is on the decline, so we learned it is possible to tackle child marriage. We also know that our approach is working: the number of child marriages is falling faster in the Her Choice target areas than in non-intervention areas.’
I strongly support our community-led approach: under normal conditions, we work closely with local change agents, such as religious leaders, elderly people and other community members. They’re really helpful in tackling child marriage as they know the community and can discuss critical matters such as child marriage and FGM. I’ve seen that in these community conversations, harmful social norms can be transformed, stopped or avoided. Therefore, these community conversations are crucial and powerful in our work. In these community conversations, we always encourage ‘good culture’: we motivate the community to nurture good norms based on their religion and indigenous knowledge. We let them formulate solutions for harmful practices such as community bylaws to regulate these harmful practices.
National family law sets 18 years as the minimum legal age of marriage, but there is a big law enforcement gap in Ethiopia. Because it has been such a long tradition to marry off girls at a young age, it is difficult to change this overnight. Even in my own family it is seen as normal to marry off your daughter when she reaches the age of 11. I advise and convince them not to marry them off, but to send their daughters to school instead. To convince them, I tell them positive things about the value of education for girls: school is a good investment for a girl’s empowerment. Some of my family members I could convince, some of them not. I have two daughters of my own, the eldest of which is now in primary school. Her ambition is to study veterinary medicine, something I heartily support.’
What are you most proud of?
‘We reached children in 16 villages and schools; in these areas we prevented girls from child marriage, FGM, unsafe sex, unintended pregnancy, rape, abduction and teenage pregnancies. In this way, more than 154 girls could escape arranged and forced marriages.
We did this by empowering girls: enhancing their knowledge of SRHR and life skills, leading to better decision making, leadership roles, better participation and communication. In addition, we provided services for girls such as menstrual pads, life skills training for girls and educational and economic supports. Also, girl friendly school environments have been created such as safe rooms for girls that include safe learning and teaching all about their SRHR. Moreover, we changed the negative attitude of the community about child marriage and other harmful practices through community conversations which gave us the chance to change people’s mindset.’
How will you continue after Her Choice: which elements are going to last?
‘We intend to continue our efforts with our long-standing donor, Kinderpostzegels, as ending child marriage requires additional time and efforts. To do this, we need to scale up these efforts and take the lessons for intervention into other areas and targets; these lessons are based on the effectiveness, efficiency, relevance, sustainability, innovativeness and replicability of the Her Choice programme.
In the future, we would like to focus more on the child mothers’ project. This was an innovative, unique and most effective part of the Her Choice programme that focused on breaking the intergenerational cycles of child marriage, concentrating on three generations: child mothers, their children and the grandparents.
Also, WCAT will definitely continue working on peer education, life skills training for girls and comprehensive sexuality education for both teachers and students. We’ll also keep on supporting child mothers through good parenting and involve men in the programme. And of course, we hope that we can continue to use the knowledge of the child marriage alliances to keep on sharing our expertise with our partners.
Our ambition for the future remains unchanged: to create a child marriage-free community together with our partner Kinderpostzegels and if possible, other organizations engaged in the alliance. But we can’t do it alone: only when we integrate child marriage into other development projects and programs worldwide, we can end child marriage by 2030.’