“I was really young on my wedding day. And I didn’t know we’d have sex that night. I thought my husband would wait for me to grow up, that he would wait for the right time.” ~ Selenat ~
For girls like Selenat, who got married when she was 13, child marriage marks the beginning of frequent and unprotected sex which often leads to an early and risky first pregnancy.
“At first we just slept. But the groomsmen kept on bugging my husband until he had to wake me up. That’s when it all happened. I didn’t really know what was going on because I was very small.
“The groomsmen and the entire family were so excited that I was a virgin that my pain, my screaming — that was the whole point of the marriage.” ~ Selenat ~
In the last decade 58 million girls in developing countries — that’s 1 in 3 — have been married before they were 18.
Ethiopia has one of the highest rates of early marriage in sub-Saharan Africa. In the Amhara region — where Selenat lives — the average age is 14.7 years.
Meet Bayush. She got married when she was 3.
Bayush lives about an hour’s drive from Selenat’s village. She explains that girls need to stay in education “no matter what”. And she’s right. Research suggests that education may be the single most important factor in reducing early and forced marriage.
“I was very young when I got married. I don’t remember much. I remember people coming around with cattle and saying they were mine. But I didn’t really know what was going on.” ~ Bayush ~
Bayush continued to live with her mum and dad after the wedding and her husband and new family visited for events. She was due to move in with her husband when she was about 8 or 9-years-old, but at the age of 7, Bayush asked to go to school.
It was this request that led to the end of her marriage. Bayush’s father refused to send her to school but her brother intervened — he offered to pay the school fees if Bayush could stay in the family home. Eventually, Bayush’s father agreed. Bayush’s relationship with her husband ended.
“Now my dad supports me, he’s on my side. He says that he would have ruined my life if he’d insisted I stay married.” ~ Bayush ~
Bayush also received support from the UK aid funded Finote Hiwot (which means “pathway to life”) programme.
“Finote Hiwot has helped me to stay in school with exercise books and pens and the different materials I need to complete my education.” ~Bayush~
The programme — which is helping at least 37,500 adolescent girls, and indirectly many more — also runs community discussions about early marriage in Bayush’s village. These conversations ultimately bring behavioural change which provides the tipping point to end the practice.
Bayush often goes to the meetings and felt empowered to speak to her uncle, who was going to marry off her cousin.
“I told my uncle what I’ve learnt through Finote Hiwot. I explained how he’d become a better person if he sent his daughter to school. I also told him that his daughter is brilliant and he decided not to marry her off. I feel so proud of what I’ve done.
“Today I dream about completing my education and becoming a doctor to help people. I feel I have a responsibility to do that.” ~ Bayush ~
This story was originally published on Medium by the UK Department for International Development. Click here to find out more about how the Department for International Development is taking action to address early and forced marriage in a range of countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Zambia, Uganda and Ethiopia.