By Indrias Getachew
Famia Abadir and Rasso Abdella are teenage girls living in Sheneni Village of Dujuma Kebele, located 20 kilometers outside of Dire Dawa town in Eastern Ethiopia. They both share dreams of attending university and working as professionals to advance the rights of girls and women. To succeed, however, they must overcome substantial hurdles. Poverty, traditional views on gender roles and the practice of child marriage threatens to derail their ambitions. Their experiences illustrate some of the challenges that girls, particularly in rural areas, face as they strive to achieve their right to an education.
“No one told me to go to school,” recalls Rasso. “I used to spend my time in the hills with my friends shepherding goats. Some of my friends went to school in the mornings. They would write what that they had learnt in school on stones using charcoal. They would write the alphabet and when they asked me what ‘A’ is, I didn’t know. I told them that I wanted to go to school but I couldn’t afford to buy books. They agreed to share their books with me. That is how I was able to start school. I now go up the mountain to collect wood and prepare charcoal. I then go to town and sell it so I can buy my exercise books – that is how I am able to go to school.”
Overcoming economic hurdles is a challenge facing rural girls in their efforts to learn, however, the age-old practice of child marriage complicates things further.
In 2011, the dire warning by a rural religious leader that girls who didn’t marry that year would not be able to marry for the next seven years, set off a spate of child marriages that resulted in over 80 girls marrying and dropping out of Dujuma Primary School. Famia, 15 at the time, was one of them.
“I was a young student, still a child,” recalls Famia. “I was going to study with my friends and my cousin told me to come to her place as the elders were gathering there because she was going to get married. She took me from my home and handed me over to her uncle’s son to get me married to him. I did not want to get married. My wish was to go to school and learn, but they abducted and raped me and that is considered marriage. I had no choice.”
Famia missed an entire year of school after she was abducted and raped, twice, in what turned out to be failed attempts to marry her against her will and the consent of her parents.
The events in Dujuma in 2011 led to a focused campaign of awareness creation and community mobilisation to end the practice of early marriage. Community discussions aimed at convincing community members about the importance of girls’ education were carried out throughout rural Dire Dawa. Awareness was also raised about the harm caused by child marriages with a view to fostering a consensus to end the practice.
Currently, school clubs are promoting gender equality and empowering the school community to respond in time to prevent child marriages through coordination with local government. Elders and religious leaders are also being engaged to convince the community to abandon the practice of early marriage.
According to local authorities, the efforts to end the practice of early marriage in Dujuma and other rural districts of the Dire Dawa Administrative Region have been successful. Indeed, Dire Dawa has the second lowest regional child marriage rate in Ethiopia after Addis Ababa. The practice is far more widespread in Amhara, Tigray and Benishangul Regions (EDHS 2011).
Transforming age-old customs, however, takes time. Returning to Dujuma in 2013, we found Famia to be nine months pregnant. Famia had left her husband and was once again living with her parents.
“After I give birth I will leave the baby with my family and return to my studies,” says Famia. “Getting married is what did this to me so it is better that I go back to school. Marriage was not good for me.”
Rasso, on the other hand, evaded all pressure to get married and was able to finish eighth grade at Dujuma Primary. Today, she is enrolled in high school in Dire Dawa town, living at the Girls’ Hostel set up by the Dire Dawa Bureau of Education with UNICEF’s support. The hostel enables girls from rural communities with no access to school to continue with their education.