UN Study
Juridical Aspects
    2.Convention on the Rights of the Child
C.1.African Charter on Rights & Welfare of Children
Factual Aspects
B. Women's & Girls' Health
C.Status in the Family
   C.2.Practices linked to marriage and divorce
      113.(a)Child marriage
      114. Child marriage........"Early marriage leads to early motherhood and problems with
              health, education, and life expectancy."
              (b) Consent to marriage     

This Life programme opens with a bride in tears: she's only four years old. Another Ethiopian bride, Nibret, is 11, but she is just as traumatized by her wedding to a boy she has never met. And well she may be, since too-early pregnancy could easily cripple or kill her. That's the reality behind the right of women and girls to choice and reproductive health.

The scene is northern Ethiopia. In the poor villages there, forced marriage of children is common, although the legal age for marriage is 15. Marriage helps cement ties between families and establish land rights. If parents are getting old (or are dead, as in Nibret's case), marriage and the transfer of cattle and property must be arranged when the spouses are still children. Parents of girls fear that if they leave it too long their daughters will not find a groom.

The Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association is campaigning for better observance of the legal marriage age. Even priests will bless child marriages, though the Coptic Church claims to uphold the law. Founder member of the Association, Original Georgis, tells terrible stories of injuries to girls through early childbearing: Sewarag developed a fistula - a rupture of the vaginal wall - after having a baby too young. The girls become incontinent and can no longer have sex, so their husbands abandon them. Sewarag was in hospital for a year and nobody visited her. She says: "I hate my life but when I see the others I'm grateful I'm not as ill as them." She will never go back to her husband, and her parents are dead.


Original Georgis says that part of the trouble is the lack of girls' schools in rural areas. If there were schools for their daughters, some parents could be persuaded to postpone their daughters' marriage and educate them. The present situation makes Original angry. "They're so helpless, they look at you, some of them are so poor and some are really hurt... When you see that you just boil inside... Development cannot happen unless you include the women."

In Northern Nigeria it's just as bad - or even worse. Here the local culture sanctions polygamy as well as child marriage. Safia was married at 12 and divorced 10 years later; she had no education or means of earning a living, and she and her children had to go and live with her mother.


Local religious leaders believe that women's role is just to comfort men. Alhaji Aminu is a used car dealer. He is 55 years old and has so far taken five wives. He divorced one and another died, but he still lives with three. He married Zadia when she was only 13 - the other wives were the same age as her mother. Now Alhaji has taken yet another wife. Zadia says: "I sit in my room and cry and cry."

The Adolescent Health and Information Project was set up by Mairo Bello to provide education and training for young married and divorced girls. She gives them practical skills to enable them to earn some income and lessons in decision-making, leadership and assertiveness. She wants to make them feel like human beings, not like "dogs that after the day's meal are just given the leftovers".

Mairo's optimistic, because "a lot of the young ones now are fighting back". But to do this, they need some education, and the means to stand on their own feet. Otherwise, like Zadia, they will remain resigned to their fate.


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