News

Celebrate Solutions: Berhane Hewan Prevents Child Marriage in Rural Ethiopia

By: Harshi Hettige, Women Deliver

“I hate early marriage. I was married at an early age and my in-laws forced me to sleep with my husband and he made me suffer all night. After that, whenever it starts to get dark, I get worried, thinking that it will be like that. This is what I hate most.”
11-year old girl from Amhara region, Ethiopia. Married at age 5, lost her virginity at age 9.

The Berhane Hewan (“Light for Eve” in Amharic) project was established to help girls like this one by providing best practices to protect them from early marriage and supporting those who are already married. In rural Amhara, almost 50% of girls are married by age 15. The most common age for a girl to marry is 12.

The Amhara region in northern Ethiopia has exceptionally high rates of child marriage where the countrywide rates are already among the highest in the world. In Ethiopia, one in two girls marry before her 18th birthday and one in five girls marry before the age of 15. This is despite the minimum legal age for marriage being 18 and the Ethiopian constitution explicitly stating that "marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses." Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church and the Islamic leadership have also publicly opposed child marriage. However, loosely-enforced laws are no match to the deeply rooted tradition of child marriage in Ethiopian communities. The practice is perpetuated by poverty, a lack of education and economic opportunities, and social customs that limit the rights of women and girls.

Gro Brundtland of The Elders describes visiting a community in Amhara, “In a tiny village, sitting in the shade of tall trees, we met young women in their late teens and early twenties, some of whom had married as young as 8 or 10, and had their first children at 13 or 14. For almost all of them, marriage was not a day of happiness. It was a day that they stopped going to school, began living with a man they had never met and having sex whether they wanted to or not.”

In 2002-03, Population Council initiated in-depth interviews and a quantitative survey in Amhara in order to identify subgroups of adolescents in need of support. The researchers pulled from 1,800 young boys and girls and found married, adolescent girls to be an underserved group in need of program designed to support them.

Population Council recounts the trauma Amhara girls described:
•    Early marriage was extremely common, virtually always arranged, and girls had very little foreknowledge of their marriage or their husband. 95% of the girls surveyed did not know their husband before marriage, and 85% were given no forewarning that they were going to be married.
•    Marriage effectively forced girls into having unwanted, uninformed sexual relations with a relative stranger.
•    More than 2/3rds of married girls reported that they had not yet started menstruating when they had sex for the first time.
•    Not surprisingly, many of these marital unions are unstable, and 12% of girls in Amhara aged 10–19 are divorced.
•    Girls experienced significant trauma during these transitions as well as social isolation and lack of support following marriage.

As a result of the research, Population Council and the Amhara Regional Bureau of Women, Children, and Youth Affairs (previously ARBOYS), piloted Berhane Hewan.

Berhane Hewan takes action by helping girls stay in school and unmarried as well by challenging the economic and cultural incentives for child marriage. In order to alleviate the financial cost to sending girls to school, families were offered US$6 in school supplies for each girl annually. Families also received a valuable sheep or goat in a public ceremony if their daughters remained unmarried for the 2-year pilot.

The program encouraged ‘community conversations’ and proposed child marriage as a topic. Already married girls were encouraged to participate in mentoring groups which dealt with social isolation, offered informal education, and family planning support.

Although it was difficult to identify which incentive was most effective, the pilot evaluation found that:
•    Girls aged 10–14 in the experimental site were 1/10th as likely to be married at endline, compared to girls in the control site, and 3x more likely to be in school
•    Married girls in the project site were 3x more likely to be using family planning methods compared to married girls in the control site

Together with USAID, the Population Council and the Amhara Regional Bureau of Women, Children, and Youth Affairs are continuing Berhane Hewan in Amhara region. Cultural and economic interventions will continue to be implemented and expanded. At the project’s peak, Berhane Hewan involved around 12,000 girls who are now role models for their communities.

Flickr photograph via hypertornado.

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