Alemtsahye Gebrekidan Explains Why She Opposes Child Marrige

Alemtsahye Gebrekidan Explains Why She Opposes Child Marrige

Alemtsahye Gebrekidan enjoyed her careless childhood in Ethiopia's northern Tigray province. This eneded when she turned ten: her parents married her off to a 16-year-old boy.

"I was playing outside and my mum called me inside to the house. She said 'You're going to marry'. I was surprised and I cried but I didn't say anything to them [parents]," Alemtsahye, now 38 and residing in London, United Kingdom, remembers.

The beginning of the 'new life' meant leaving home and school and becoming a traditional Ethiopian wife: house chores, cooking. At 13, Alemtsahye had a baby son, Tefsalen, now 25, to care for as well. She remembers the pregnancy and birth as a traumatic time. Motherhood was even tougher for her, worsened by the fact that in 1989, Ethiopia was in the throes of a vicious civil war. The conflict, which raged intermittently from 1974 until 1991, eventually left more than 1.4 million dead. Alemtsahye's husband was killed at the age of 19.

"I was a widow at 13 and when [my husband] left me, he left me with a one-year-old baby. It was very hard. Very difficult for me left behind with a baby and still a baby myself."

"I feel sorry for him [the husband] because he did not enjoy his life," she says. "He married young and finished in a war that ended his life. When I see his son, I sometimes cry."

Left alone with only her son, Alemtsahye soon fell into the hands of traffickers, tempted by promises of a better life abroad. Leaving her son with her mother, she travelled to Egypt where she worked as a domestic servant. Two months after arriving, other traffickers promised her a new life in the UK.

"I was smuggled to London by Arab people," she explains. "They said: 'You are working with us and we will take you to London'. They brought me and left me here."

The former child bride was initially placed with a foster family, but swiftly moved to a tiny flat of her own. She went back to school and learned English, and now has set up a charity which aims to help former child brides from Ethiopia and is part of Girls Not Brides - a global network of NGOs working to end child marriage.

Her son, now 25, lives in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and grew up with his grandparents, only seeing his mother during her occasional visits home. If her parents had tried to marry him off at a young age as well, she says she would have found a way to stop the wedding.

"I told him: 'Never ever think to marry young!' I wanted him to get educated so I said to him: 'Look at me, I am your mother, look at everything that messed up my life!'

"He is a carpenter," she adds. "I am very proud of him now!"

Worrying tendency

Although Alemtsahye's story has a relatively happy ending, she's aware that the problem of child marriage shows no signs of going away. According to World Health Organisation figures, 14.2 million girls under the age of 15 are forced into marriage each year. If these estimates prove correct, the phenomenon could become increasingly widespread over the next five years.

"Why do you damage his or her life?" Alemtsahye asks. "Send them to school to study. Do you know the problems that come with marrying off a child so young? They will miss their childhood."

The consequences of child marriages are appalling. Along with an education and childhood cut short, girls suffer a traumatic initiation into sexual relationships, are put at risk of domestic violence and STI's, and have the chance of a career or better life taken away. Worse, many also die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related complications - the leading cause of death for girls aged between 15 and 19 years old in developing countries, according to UN figures.

As Alemtsahye's story reveals, girls aren't the only victims of forced marriages.

"Boys do get married young and that is an issue that needs to be addressed," researchers explain. "But the majority of child marriages involve girls.

"Also, boys tend to marry girls same age or younger while girls marry much older men. Boys also aren't taken out of education while girls run the risk of early childbirth and all the complications that brings."


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