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Ethiopia’s child brides can and must be supported

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A 15-year-old, Aisha*, and her 19-year-old husband, Kidanu*, had a dream to buy a house and maybe more cattle before they had children. In Ethiopia, there is intense social pressure on couples to prove their fertility right after marriage, but they were ready to wait because the world is changing. Resources such as land, pasture and water can no longer sustain a fast-growing population.

Learning about a pregnancy should be such a joyful moment in a family’s life. But when Aisha and Kidanu got the news they were overwhelmed. When you are teenagers and still want to do more to provide for your future children, an unexpected pregnancy is nothing to celebrate.

One way to break this cycle is to give child brides access to contraception as soon as they get married. Beyond acknowledging the existence of these child brides and allocating adequate resources to find them, we must also provide information and sexual and reproductive health services in an adolescent-friendly manner and help them to maintain good relationships with the health service providers in their community.

In Ethiopia, child marriage has been criminalised since 2005. During the 2014 International Girls Summit in London, the country pledged to end child marriage by 2025. Yet the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund estimates that Ethiopia is home to 15-million child brides, of whom six million are below the age of 15. If progress continues, the prevalence of child marriage will drop to 20% by 2030 and to below 10% by 2050.

As the daughter of a child bride, I have deep personal knowledge of the issue. My mother was pulled out of school and married off when she was 10. She had her first child at the age of 15. Until she had her first born — me — she regularly ran away to her parents’ home to ask for their mercy. Her father would beat her and send her back to her husband and parents-in-law, where she might face another beating. However, this painful back and forth stopped when she had me. Next to her early marriage, my arrival to this world was another calamity.

But she didn’t give up on education, and as soon as I started walking the first thing she did was teach me the Amharic alphabet and send me to school. This helped me to delay my marriage until I was 27.

If we support the child brides of today, it is possible to break the inter-generational cycle in our generation. Ending child marriage requires a co-ordinated effort, in which the health sector plays a crucial role both in the prevention of child marriage and in providing services for the existing child brides. The Ethiopian government’s adolescent/youth health strategy plans to reduce teenage pregnancy to 3% from 13% by 2020. An estimated 83% of teenage pregnancies occur in marriage.

My mother gave birth to eight children. She went through a lot to send all of us to school because the produce from my parents’ land was not by any means adequate. The land holdings of today’s child brides are far less than that of my parents because Ethiopia’s high population makes land increasingly scarce.

Oftentimes development groups say that the child brides are hard to reach and the social value attached to proving their fertility is hard to undermine. But, in my professional experience this is simply not true. Under the Smart Start programme, co-designed with and for child brides, Population Services International/Ethiopia has served more than 35 000 child brides a year in 28 districts of four regions and it is still growing. One in two girls adopted contraception, and half of those don’t have children yet.

We have already failed to protect 15-million Ethiopians from child marriage. We will fail them once again if we don’t protect them from unwanted teenage pregnancy. We can support them to delay the first child birth, space out births and have the family size they can afford in their reproductive lifetime.

Metsehate Ayenekulu is the programme director for Population Services International/Ethiopia. She is an Aspen New Voices Fellow

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Metsehate Ayenekulu
Metsehate Ayenekulu
Metsehate Ayenekulu is Ethiopia program director for Adolescents 360, which aims to reduce unintended pregnancies among teenagers. She is a 2019 Aspen New Voices Fellow

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