BOSET WOREDA, Ethiopia (November 16, 2012) —
A beautiful landscape surrounds the well-fenced and clean Borchota Primary School compound in Boset Woreda. The school has 168 female and 197 male students.
Aberash, 15, was abducted when she was 14. She managed to escape and flee to her grandmother’s house.
Lensa, 15, was raped as she made the two-hour journey to school one day. She, too, was able to escape.
Although she wanted to finish her education, Asham, 14, was to be married—until the school intervened.
In Ethiopia, child marriage is one of the harmful traditional practices that affect girls’ lives, choices and opportunities. According to the 2011 Demographic Health Survey, 63% of women are married by age 18.
In the past five years, child marriage among women has shown a slight decline. Among women aged 25–49, the median age at first marriage has risen from 16.1 to 16.5.
Another harmful traditional practice is abduction for the purpose of marriage. The survey put the prevalence rate of women who said they had been married by abduction at 7.8%.
Deputy Head of Education Bureau in Boset Woreda Woinshet Yadesa says that harmful traditional practices such as abduction, rape and early marriage are becoming a serious threat to girls’ enrollment in school.
Girls are also inundated with domestic chores such as fetching water and collecting fuelwood. “Sometimes they walk for about five hours to collect water,” says Yadesa. “As most of the families have so many children, the girls within the household take turns in the community to fetch water, and the girl that fetches water that day is obliged to give up her class... School performance is highly affected due to physical fatigue and not being able to concentrate in class.”
Leta Tolla Abboo has served as school principal of Borchota Primary School for eight years. His face brightens as he talks about the 52-member girls’ club composed of boys and girls that plays a key role in addressing these problems. “It is like a station where the girls freely talk about their problems and seek solutions as they go through similar life challenges in their community,” he explains.
The school itself is vigilant. “As soon as we receive a report from a girl that she is facing any of these challenges, we first invite the parents to come to the school and discuss the issue. Also, we make them sign a form that clearly states that they will not agree to give their girl child to marriage,” says Abboo.
In addition, if a girl is missing from school for few days, the school contacts her family. The second step is to issue a letter to officials of the kebele, or sub-district, about the absence.
As a safety measure, the school has put in place a mechanism of having students walk home from school in groups of ten in order to protect each other.
According to both Yadesa and Abboo, community-wide discussions on harmful traditional practices have been conducted by the Bureau of Education, with the support of UNICEF. These discussions have had 35 female and 21 male participants, including students, teachers, religious leaders and other community members.
After the discussions, the community prepared its own set of laws in order to control the situation, including such penalties as imprisonment and forfeit.
The Bureau of Education has put in place an award system to reward families who send their girl children to school despite all the challenges.
The law in the community is becoming firm, the girls’ club is being strengthened, and dialogue between the community and the Bureau of Education continues.
And in the compound, the story is unraveling. Once a story of fear and uncertainty, it is now a story of courage, hope and the dream to become someone.