Girls in Ethiopia Say No to Child Marriage

The UNFPA-supported safe house in Ethiopia’s Benishangul Gumuz region is a sanctuary for up to 100 survivors of violence. © UNFPA/Fasil Zenebe/Mopix
The UNFPA safe house in Ethiopia’s Benishangul Gumuz region is a sanctuary for up to 100 survivors of violence and girls fleeing child marriage. © UNFPA/Fasil Zenebe/Mopix

BENISHANGUL-GUMUZ, Ethiopia – “I was very scared when I first entered the safe house. I was lonely and wouldn’t leave my room for a month,” said Abeba, now 18.

Recalling her early days at a UNFPA-supported safe house, Abeba continued, “The people here are very welcoming and kind, so it didn’t take me long to adapt. Now I have become the person who welcomes the newcomers.” 

When Abeba was 14, conflict broke out near her home in the Metekel Zone in Ethiopia. Abeba and her family, along with tens of thousands of other residents, had to relocate. Before the fighting and violence, her parents kept cattle and ran a successful farming business near Mandura City. But, when armed groups attacked their village, the family fled, leaving behind everything they owned.

For Abeba, their resettlement meant abandoning her schooling. As a top-performing student, she valued her education and understood how important it was for her future. “If we are not educated, we can’t change our lives,” she explained.  

UNFPA supports ten safe spaces across seven regions of Ethiopia, which offer counselling, medical care, livelihoods training and a step back into education. © UNFPA Ethiopia
UNFPA supports ten safe spaces across seven regions of Ethiopia. © UNFPA Ethiopia

The Courage to Say No to Child Marriage in Ethiopia

The family sought refuge at a camp for displaced people in the neighboring Amhara region. Soon after, Abeba tried to enroll at a local school. When she fled with her family, she left all her school documents behind and the new school refused to accept her transfer. Undeterred, she left her family and returned to live with a relative to pursue her studies.

Abeba’s endeavor ended quickly. Struggling to survive, her parents accepted an offer from an older, wealthy man, who promised to financially support the family. In exchange, he requested Abeba’s hand in marriage.

Abeba was horrified. She refused the proposal and insisted on staying in school. Her parents relented, but her suitor was more tenacious. He moved closer and followed her as she went to school. Fearing abduction and child marriage, she ran away to stay with her older sister in a nearby city. She enrolled at yet another new school. 

Some days later the man appeared again and tormented her. He refused to let her continue her education – and childhood – in peace. 

At her new school, Abeba attended an awareness session on violence and sexual and reproductive health. It was there that she learned about a UNFPA-supported safe house, run by the Mujejegua Loka Women’s Development Association. After hearing that the safe house provided shelter and support to survivors like her, she reached out and received an offer to come stay in the home.

“I was relieved to join a place with a supportive environment, counseling, and other resources to help me feel safe and move forward,” she told UNFPA.

From Surviving to Thriving

The safe house shelters up to 100 women and girls. All residents are survivors of rape, intimate partner abuse, or fleeing forced marriages. The safe houses offer a home, food, education, medical treatment, mental health counseling, and training in vocational skills.

After four years at the center, Abeba continues to excel academically. She maintains her spot at the top of the class and in her region. “I want to attend Addis Ababa University and study social work, so I can empower women and girls and support them in leading safe and fulfilling lives,” she told UNFPA.

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