Yeshiwork Marye is baking injera – a flat, sour bread that’s a staple food in Ethiopia. The 18-year-old is sitting in a small outdoor kitchen with partially completed walls. Smoke from burning animal dung billows from the kitchen.
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Responsibility came early for Yeshiwork. At the age of 14, she started caring for her young brother because her single mother got married and went live with her husband, 100 kilometers away. Yeshiwork herself was married when she was 17.
"He knew marrying a 17-year-old was illegal"
Yeshiwork describes her marriage as difficult and awful. She says she only got married to please her family.
Yeshiwork’s husband was at least 25 years older than she was. He worked in his town’s justice system. He was recognized as an advocate of the prevention of early marriage, but Yeshiwork says he did not practice what he preached.
“He knew marrying a 17-year-old was illegal,” she says. “In the papers he said I was 18.”
She says he was more than twice her age, and they could not relate well to each other. He wanted her to have children even before she finished high school.
Nigisti Halefom, a woman's rights advocate for Ofla District, tried to stop the marriage.
“This man knew what he was doing,” Nigisti says. “Others violate women’s rights because of lack of information, but not this man. He knew she was young, she was a student and he violated her right to associate with her peers and has psychologically disturbed her.”
Yeshiwork's divorce settlement got her a negligible amount of money. She did not pass her 10th grade national examination to go to college and now lives with her mother.
Effects of early marriage
Girls and young women whose bodies are not fully formed are susceptible to complications during birth, like fistula. It’s a tear in the lining of the uterus that allows urine and other bodily fluids to leak through. The condition is painful and often creates an odor that leads many communities to ostracize the girl.
Many come for treatment at the country’s fistula hospital in the capital, Addis Ababa. Mark Bennett the hospital’s CEO says about 65% of the victims are young women and this has happened in their first pregnancy.
“These women are disappointed because they have lost a baby. But because they are leaking these bodily contents, they become offensive to those who live with them and a high proportion of them become separated from their husbands,” says Bennett.
Efforts to end early marriage in rural areas
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Such cases are even more widespread in rural areas.
In the semi-desert rural village of Arerit, Tuesday is market day. The market is an important meeting venue for the local marriage approval committee. It’s supported by a local NGO and works with law enforcement agents and elders to evaluate the physical fitness of all girls in the village before they get married.
Committee member Hussien Areru says all marriage arrangements have to be approved by the committee, which consists of religious leaders, government representatives and women’s rights groups.
“Some people arrange secret weddings but they eventually face prosecution, since the community reports such acts to appropriate authorities,” Hussien says.
Parents still ask the committee to approve marriage for girls as young as 12, but the girl has to pass a medical evaluation. The evaluation takes place at a clinic that is six hours away traveling on foot.
Village elders in Arerit hope that this sort of community policing will soon make early marriage a thing of the past.