Ethiopian Domestic Worker Fleeing Child Marriage
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Her sister showed her the dress. White, long and shining, it was the prettiest dress Tsehay had ever seen. Tsehay was nine years old and this was going to be the first time she would wear new clothes; until then, she had always worn hand-me-downs from her older sisters.
For me? This dress is for me?
Yes, for your wedding this afternoon.
For my what?
Tsehay didn't understand a thing. She had heard about marriage because her four older sisters were married; she had been at the wedding parties of the two youngest – who said that they were very happy – but she never thought that something like this would happen to her so soon.
She was so startled that she didn't even think to ask who she was going to marry. Her sister told her anyway: a boy from the same town, though Tsehay didn't know him. She did ask what it was like to be married. Her sister told her not to worry, everything would be all right. She would have to take care of her new house, her husband and her children. Tsehay thought that it must be difficult to have children. Then her sister explained that, since she was still so young, she would stay with her family until she came of age: in two years, when she turned eleven, her sister said, she would go live with her husband.
For Tsehay, the day went by in a cloud. Her sisters dressed her, her mother did her hair; they put perfume on her and, later, the town's elders came over with the groom and his family. The groom, Tsehay thought, seemed as nervous as she, but he was a big boy: he was at least fifteen. Tsehay was very frightened: she would never be able to live with this grown man. The boy tried to meet her eye, but Tsehay looked away. In fact, they never once spoke during the party, with all its food, drink and song. Bride and groom alike hid with their own families.
Night fell and Tsehay slept at home. The next morning, they dressed her again for the party at the groom's house: another day of dancing and celebration. When it was all over, Tsehay went home with her parents and siblings. Everything seemed the same but it was so different: she was married.
Child marriage is traditional and common in Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa and one of the poorest. In the rural Northern provinces where Tsehay lives, nine out of ten marriages are arranged by parents, and almost half the girls are married before they are fifteen.
Tsehay was born in 1989, in a village of two hundred families with neither electricity nor running water. Her family was not among the poorest: they had a small piece of land for growing barley and wheat; two cows, two oxen and a three-room shack made out of branches, mud and manure.
Tsehay never went to school. There was none in her village and, besides, she was always too busy. For as long as she can remember she had to work at home or in the fields. Sometimes she had a little time to play with other kids. She remembers that one day her mother told her to play carefully so that she didn't open up her wound. But, try as she might, she cannot remember anything else about her genital mutilation: she thinks that she was five or six at the time, but she is not sure. For Tsehay the moment of the "circumcision", as they do to three out of four Ethiopian women, is a blank.
Two or three times a year, Tsehay would go to an Ethiopian Orthodox mass; otherwise, to her, usually one day was just like the next: cleaning, cooking, taking care of the animals, fetching water from the well. Tsehay didn't complain: she couldn't imagine a different life.
Six months after her wedding, Tsehay saw her husband again, at church, because it was Epiphany. He tried to approach her, to talk to her, but she ran away: she was not the least bit interested. She was increasingly afraid of living with that man; he might make her do things against her will and force her to bear children and work for him and for them. But she couldn't think of a way out.
Months later, her father got sick: he felt weak and had a high fever. He went to a first aid centre at a nearby town, where a nurse gave him an injection and sent him home. That's where he died, soon thereafter, of malaria. Tsehay isn't sure how old he was, but she thinks he must have been about fifty.
The death of her father changed everything. Her mother was pregnant and there was no way to work their little plot. Over the course of just a few months, they had to sell their animals and some of their land. Tsehay grew desperate: the date when she would have to move in with her husband was drawing near. She didn't want to, but had no choice: if she refused, her husband's family could sue hers and demand money that they didn't have. It would ruin them for good. Tsehay thought that she had to do something.
I had heard talk of Addis Ababa, one of my relatives had told me about it. They told me that their people didn't have to work; if you went there, they would give you something to eat and take care of you. I wanted to be taken care of. I was a child, but I had never been able to be a child; no one had ever looked after me or taken care of me. And if I got married everything would change for the worse. So I decided to go to Addis, where they would take care of me.
Tsehay knew that the relative who had spoken to her of Addis – a 30-year-old man related to her father, a trader who often went to the capital – was about to travel. That afternoon, Tsehay took a 100-birr bill –about 10 US dollars– that her mother kept in a drawer and hid it in the fields. The next morning, she woke before dawn, got the bill and, without saying goodbye to anyone, went to the house of the relative who had spoken of Addis.
Tsehay told him that she wanted him to take her there. The man said no. She told him if he didn't take her she would go alone; the man agreed. Tsehay doesn't remember much about the trip. She knows that it took three days, that sometimes they had to walk and that they never reached Addis. The man took her to a town in the south, near Wellega, where he put her to work in the fields of some friend of his. This wasn't why Tsehay had left her town.
Here she had to work endlessly, no one took care of her, and it wasn't even her hometown. After two weeks, Tsehay repeated her ultimatum: if you don't get me out of here, I will go alone. The man took her to the capital. When they arrived, Addis seemed very big and noisy. But she didn't have a lot of time to look around: the next day, her relative got her a job as a domestic worker in the house of another family he knew. Tsehay started to realize that her life in the capital would not be like she had imagined it.
Then I realized that he had tricked me. But I had to stay; there was no way out. I couldn't go home, nor could I do anything else.
The family lived in a modest house in the Merkato neighborhood, where Addis's central market is. In Ethiopia, poor families do as the rich ones do; they take on still poorer people who work for little more than a roof over their head and something to eat.
From then on, Tsehay has no real sense of time: it's as if nothing else important happened to her. Or very little. She remembers the time she got fed up with her boss and went to work at another house, but she went back after a few months. Or the time that a neighbour who was a sex worker and had very nice clothes and good food suggested that Tsehay work with her. She thought about it, but decided not to:
I was afraid of catching HIV, and if I got sick I would never be able to have children or anything.
For eight years, all of Tsehay's days have been alike: she gets up at six in the morning, has a cup of tea and starts making the injera, the traditional Ethiopian bread. Her employers sell the bread she makes to neighbours. At one o'clock, when she finishes cooking, she fetches water in a bucket, washes the cooking utensils and starts cleaning the house. When she finishes, around five o'clock, she starts cooking dinner for the family. At nine, her bosses sit down to eat; Tsehay eats what is left a little later alone in a corner, and then goes to sleep.
She says that they treat her well: they don't beat her or rape her, and they pay her a salary of 50 birr –about five US dollars – a month. Occasionally she goes to church or out for a walk. Until recently, she didn't know anyone, didn't have any friends. In the city full of people, Tsehay lived a more solitary life than she had in her town.
And can you bear this life?
Yes, I am fine, because I have a plan for the future.
Tsehay says that something changed when she started taking the informal educational classes offered through the Biruh Tesfa – Bright Future – project organized by the Ministry of Youth with the support of the Population Council and UNFPA. There she learned how to write her name and dial a phone number, and she is going to learn to read. But, above all, she met other girls like her, girls who arrived to Addis escaping early marriage and poverty.
One classmate told me about Arab countries, like Qatar and Kuwait, where a girl can work and make more money, be independent. Then she introduced me to people who organize the trip for you. So I decided to do it. I used all the money I had saved up, about 600 birr, to get my passport to go. But things didn't turn out right.
In preparation for her trip, Tsehay had to get a medical examination, and they discovered she had a problem, "Some scar, I don't know what, something," with a lung. So they said that she had to recover before traveling, but she has not been able to get the necessary treatment because she had spent all her money.
The day they told me that I couldn't go was the saddest day of my life. I cried and cried, but then I thought that it would all work out, that one way or another I would be able to do it.
And which was your happiest day?
Tsehay thinks for a while. First she says that there was no happiest day, but then she says it was when she went back to her town.
I went back about three years ago because I found out that my brother had died. So I was able to see my mother. I didn't know whether she was dead or alive, and I was so happy to see her again, to embrace her.
You wouldn't like to go back for good?
Tsehay thinks again, and then says that she wouldn't. That there is nothing, there is no running water or electricity, and if she went back she would have to get married and have children, and so all she would do would be to look after them, her home and husband:
If it cannot be helped, I will have to go back, but I hope not. If I went back to the town I wouldn't have a life of my own; everything would be for them. I could never buy a piece of clothing for myself. One day, I want to buy a piece of clothing for me.
Cultures have their own ways of marking the differences between boys and girls and what is expected of them. What all cultures have in common is that expectations change as children grow into adolescents. This is especially true for girls.
In cities, girls as well as boys tend to stay in school. They make a gradual transition to the responsibilities of adulthood. But in traditional and rural societies, puberty still marks the dividing line when most young girls leave school and start on the unsafe road of marriage and motherhood. Marriages are arranged by their elders, and young people, even boys, have little or no choice in the matter.
Tradition is losing its grip on girls, even very young ones like Tsehay. Some girls, like Tsehay, escape child marriage by leaving their villages. Those who stay will sometimes find support from programmes working against child marriage. These girls are asserting their right to decide for themselves whom and when to marry, even leaving home if they have to. Although they would not put it like that, they are claiming their adolescence, demanding enough time to equip themselves for adult life in the 21st century.
All countries – including Tsehay's – agree that child marriage is an abuse of children's human rights. Yet in the next ten years, a hundred million girl children will probably be married. In regional hot spots such as Tsehay's Amhara region in Ethiopia, as many as half the girls are married by the age of 15; in Bihar, India, 40 per cent; in Bangladesh more than a third, in Chad 29 per cent and in the Dominican Republic 11 per cent. There are about 51 million married adolescents in the world.
Once they are married, girls are usually not allowed to leave their homes, and are cut off from their birth family and friends. They have less access to modern media or other sources of information than unmarried girls. They have no power in their households and are barely involved in decisions to do with sexuality and reproduction. Their husbands are likely to be older and more sexually experienced, which exposes the girls to a higher risk of HIV infection, especially since sex is likely to be unprotected. They are expected to produce children as soon as possible and risk their lives in doing so: young adolescents' risk of illness, injury or death as a result of pregnancy is much higher than for women over 18.
Several international human rights instruments protect children from child marriage. These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Convention of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990). These instruments call for the free and full consent of parties to marriage, minimum age of marriage set at 18 years old, inclusion of child marriage as a harmful practice and protection for the rights of children from all forms of exploitation.
Many programmes around the world are working to prevent child marriage. For example, the Berhane Hewan programme in Amhara, Ethiopia enrols groups of girls at risk of child marriage. Female mentors promote functional literacy, life skills, livelihoods skills and reproductive health education. At monthly community conversations, parents and religious leaders discuss child marriage and issues that affect the girls' wellbeing. When girls graduate from the programme their families are given a goat – the same present they would have received from the bridegroom's family.
Community involvement is a major component of the programme and perhaps one of the keys to its success: 96 per cent of participants remain unmarried after two years in the programme. Similar results are seen in programmes in India, Bangladesh, Egypt, Kenya and Burkina Faso.
Renewed and more intense efforts are needed to reach all adolescent girls at risk of child marriage while they are still at school. Working within cultures, and with the participation of families and local communities, the eradication of this timeworn practice will allow millions of girls to stay in school and enjoy a socially protected transition to adulthood.
"...if I got married everything would change for the worse. So I decided to go to Addis."