Child Marriage in Ethiopia, Faces of Change: The Mother
by Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop
26 November 2015
7. The Mother
“At first the community blamed me for my decision, but now they see me as a clever woman. I am a role model! Other women ask me about the challenges of educating girls rather than marrying them.”
Hebeste Kesete (left), 40, a vibrant charismatic woman, is one of 70 community influencers who make up the Community Conversation Group. The Group is supported by UNICEF and meets twice a month to advocate for the end of child marriage, and to act upon reports of planned marriages in the Bandani Kebele (neighbourhood) of the Dangla Woreda (district) in Amhara, Ethiopia.
Hebeste peppers her talk of the tragedy of child marriage with guffaws of rich laughter, as she finds humour in the retelling of her painful childhood, blighted not just by one, but by three forced marriages at the ages of 9, 11 and 15.
“Of course I was forced to have sex with him,” she says laughing heartily as she motions with her hands, speaking of her nine year old self. At that young age and newly married, she was constantly sent back to her husband’s home by her own parents, despite running back to them at every opportunity.
This pattern would repeat itself with her second and third marriages, all of which ended in divorce. However the third marriage lasted long enough for Hebeste to have her five children.
“I suffered a lot. In my first marriage, every evening I had to wash my husband’s legs, and those of my parents in law,” she explains – a common practise for girl wives in the community, indicative of their submissive position within the household.
Hebeste has four daughters and one son. The oldest daughter aged 20 is a teacher, Hebeste’s 18 year old daughter is at college and the other children, aged 7, 9 and 12, are all at school.
“My family told me I must marry my daughters as young girls. But I told them how much I went through and that child marriage has to be stopped. Their father also wanted to arrange marriages for the girls, which is what lead to our divorce. He wanted the assets that would have accrued from their being married off.”
Hebeste’s striking and determined eyes sparkle throughout the conversation as she continues: “I was determined to send all my children to school and to protect my daughters from going through the same experiences. As for my daughters’ view – they are thanking me!
“At first the community blamed me for my decision, but now they see me as a clever woman. I am a role model! I get asked for advice when I go to church on a Sunday. Other women ask me about the challenges of educating girls rather than marrying them, especially as I care for my children alone. I explain that I make a living by cooking for the local community.
“The worst thing I see are the pregnancies of these girls – they get pregnant again even while trying to manage caring for their first child. Their wellbeing and personal hygiene suffer.”
Photo: © UNICEF/ESARO 2015/Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop