Flag wavers: youth-led interventions to stop child marriage

This is a story of four girls who, with the help of peer-led interventions, have escaped forced marriage at an Elementary School in Amhara Region, northern Ethiopia. Betelhem from Youth For Change Ethiopia met with them to find out more.

Ethiopian girls discuss child marriage (CREDIT: plan)

Ethiopian girls discuss child marriage (CREDIT: plan)

Sintayehu was only 9 years old girl attending grade 5 when she caught a rumor in the neighborhood that her parents were arranging for her marriage.

Left with only one month to the wedding ceremony, arranged without her knowledge or consent, she was afraid but smart enough to fight for her rights. Sintayehu immediately took her case to the peer-to-peer team at her school. 

The peer-to-peer team is a school-based platform organized by the Professional Alliance for Development Office (PADET) which delivers trainings for student conveying different messages through drama and music. They work mainly on the issues of child marriage and child labor, and at this particular school they now have 20 members.

The peer-to-peer team then went to Sintayehu’s parents’ house, holding the Ethiopian flag, to talk about the issue and explain the impacts marriage would have on their beloved daughter.

the power of peer-led interventions

The idea behind holding the national flag in such situations is to send the message that the girl would die if married at that early age.

The flag has a special place in different rituals - the community use the flag for traditional celebration, joyful days, but importantly, it’s also used to mourn at funeral service. The idea behind holding the national flag in such situations is to send the message that the girl would die if married at that early age. 

After discussing with the school team Sintayehu’s parents understood their wrongdoings – they decided that the wedding was to be canceled. Now attending her grade 8, Sintayehu is also member of the peer-to-peer team striving to stop other girls being forced to marriage.

What's in a name?

Ethiopian girl addresses her classmates (credit: Plan)

Ethiopian girl addresses her classmates (credit: Plan)

In most Ethiopian communities, but most of all in Amhara community, name giving has a big place in social customs. Sintayehu means ‘how much I’ve been through’. 

Another girl is called Bizunesh. In the Amharic language, her name means ‘you are as myriad as you are’. Even though they’d given such a name to their little daughter, Bizunesh’s parents insisted in setting up a wedding ceremony exactly one year from now when she was a little girl at Grade 5.

Rumor reached Bizunesh just two months ahead of her proposed wedding that her parents were arranging a wedding ceremony for her. Luckily, she had information about the impacts of child marriage already and decided to inform the peer-to-peer team in her school about the arrangement. The team followed same strategy as Sintayehu.

Following the intervention,  her family disregarded the marriage and decided that Bizunesh would not be pulled out of school. She’s now a happy young girl attending her Grade 6 study.

I did not know who my husband was going to be

Like with the cases with Sintayehu and Bizunesh, Amarech and Tigist have also escaped an early marriage. Both are now attending Grade 8 – Amarech was proposed to marry three years ago and Tigist just last year. “I did not know who my husband was going to be,” said Amarech.

Social norms and lack of education drive child marriage

Young ethiopians take part in dance activity advocating against child marriage (CREDIT: PLan)

Young ethiopians take part in dance activity advocating against child marriage (CREDIT: PLan)

These girls share one thing in common. When asked why their parents proposed the marriage, their response was that “…they are just uneducated farmers – they have no awareness about the impacts of child marriage.”

“After marriage, our parents assume we will live nearby to their home just to celebrate holidays together.”

The girls account that, their parents also wanted them to marry because of social and traditional norms – once parents have been invited to different wedding ceremonies in the neighborhood, they’re expected to pay back that invitation with their own daughter’s marriage ceremony. They believe such ceremonies bring happiness and ‘grace’ to the family.

young people changing outcomes for girls.

Two months prior to the planned wedding ceremony, Amarech managed to reach the peer-to-peer team that keep taking the flag with them to show parents that girls are being forced to death, therefore winning the parents’ hearts.

In ideal situations, such peer-led interventions can be a powerful motivator on parents to abandon the marriage. Due to the efforts of the peer-to-peer team in their school, the students I spoke to said that there has been no any girls under 18 married in that Keble [smaller locality administration] in the past 4 years.

Using the Ethiopian flag, opening peer-based discussion and transferring messages through drama and music. These are the good practices that have been implemented. We want to see more such efforts across Ethiopia – young people can and should lead the fight against child marriage.

See more stories from the Youth For Change Ethiopia team here.

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