14-year-old went straight to the police when her parents tried to force her to marry
Here’s how girls like Mestawet Mekuria are empowered to control their own lives.
Mestawet Mekuria dreams of becoming a teacher or doctor when she grows up.
But as a 14-year-old girl in Ethiopia, she found her future under threat from the very people who were supposed to help her realise her ambitions.
Her parents attempted to force her to marry. But she wasn’t having any of it.
“I went to the police station when my parents told me that I am getting married,” Mekuria told UNICEF Ethiopia.
“I had learned about child marriage and its consequences in our school’s girls’ club,” she said. “I told my parents that I do not want to get married. But they refused, and that is when I ran to the police station.”
It came as a surprise to Mekuria when her parents were arrested and imprisoned for a fortnight. The minimum marriage age in Ethiopia is 18 — but laws are rarely enforced, and she thought her mum and dad might just get a warning.
Indeed, Mekuria lives in the Amhara region, where 56% of girls are married before the age of 18, according to the 2011 Ethiopian Demographic Health Survey (EDHS).
It took the intervention of village elders to eventually make peace between Mekuria and her parents, but now everything has returned to normal — way better than normal, actually.
“My parents now understand about child marriage and its consequences,” Mekuria said. “They are no longer angry with me.”
Mekuria is one of 20 girls rescued from child marriage in the last two years at Ayti Primary School in northern Ethiopia — and if you’re from Britain, you helped make it happen.
The girls’ club that taught Mekuria about the issue was supported by UK aid — the lifesaving money spent by the Department of International Development (DfID) to end extreme poverty before 2030.
Now, partly thanks to UK aid, Mekuria is free to focus on her aspirations for medicine or teaching.
Specifically, UK aid money was used to support the UNICEF-UNFPA Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, which in turn worked with the Bureau of Women and Children Affairs (BoWCA) to set up clubs like these all over the Amhara region in 2015, according to UNICEF Ethiopia.
The clubs empower young girls by offering life skills training, information about their rights, and even reaching out to families to change attitudes often rooted in traditional beliefs and values. And it works: a BoWCA trainer told UNICEF Ethiopia that it helped 106 girls escape child marriage in 2016 and 55 in 2017.
Globally, over 650 million women alive today were married as children.
In July 2014, the UK hosted the world’s first Girl Summit with the intention of ending forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) within a generation. It was there that Ethiopia pledged to end both by 2025.
But it’s an uphill struggle. The EDHS reports that 65% of women aged 14-49 in Ethiopia have undergone FGM, while two in five girls will be married before their 18th birthday. It’s difficult to prosecute child marriage too: Ethiopia has no working system to register births, deaths, or marriages, according to Girls Not Brides, so it’s incredibly difficult to prove that a girl is actually underage.
Child marriage has painful consequences for society as a whole. It’s not just girls like Mekuria who suffer — it can contribute to trap entire communities in poverty indefinitely as it limits economic progress. When girls marry young, they’re more likely to drop out of school; more vulnerable to gender violence; less likely to get a job; at greater risk of poor health, FGM, and pregnancy complications.
“Child marriage is a harmful practice, and I want girls to continue with their education like me,” Mekuria said. “I have seen my classmates quit school because they are married. I always tell my friends in my village about child marriage, and I will continue to do so to others”.