By Alemtsehay Zergaw
On International Women’s Day, the World YWCA participated in many exciting and inspiring events. Alemtsehay Zergaw, Programme Associate, Communications, from the YWCA of Ethiopia, participated in one of these events. Alemtsehay gave a speech at a side event at the XVI Human Rights Council on violence against children as a result of harmful traditional practices. Alem shares the speech with us.
About 3200 miles from here, a girl is born to a remote rural family in Ethiopia. Her name is Amarech which means beautiful. From the very beginning of her coming to the world, she is coldly received in a tradition where the high expectation was for a baby boy that is normally perceived as a source of honour and an assurance of the continuity of the family line.
Before she is 3 year old, she will have to endure a painful traditional genital mutilation practice with the full consent, and often presence, of her own parents. She will be raised with the mindset that she lives to serve a man, to give him a baby and to serve him in the house. She will then grow up in the house carrying the burden of cleaning the house, fetching water on her back from a river a few miles away, cooking food for the family, domestic tasks which are normally considered the necessary tasks of a girl in a house hold. She may as well endure rape and abuse by men while fetching water or going to school. When she is 7, her parents will force her to marry an old man. If by any chance her parents haven’t agreed to give her to an older man, she could be abducted and forced into marriage anyway. She will end up in early marriage with an old man and face early pregnancy. Early pregnancy complicates her health and she could face fistula problems. There are no clinics to go to. And she doesn’t have money. If she feels strong and gets bitter and escapes the early marriage, she then ends up in a big city. She doesn’t know anyone in the city and so she has to make money to avoid ending up on the streets. She may end up working as a domestic maid, endlessly, for a very small salary or as a sex worker. In the latter case, she will be at higher risk of HIV infection and of dying of AIDS related illness due to a lack of treatment and good nutrition.
Such is the life of the girl child in a typical small remote rural town in Ethiopia. Long upheld traditional social values and practices continue to discriminate and act as violence against girls like Amarech. These practices are continued even after by some community and faith leaders. I will briefly explain some of these practices, and end with a brief summary of what the YWCA of Ethiopia has been doing to tackle some of those problems. As exemplified in Amarech’s life story, some of the traditional harmful practices in Ethiopia include: a traditional preference for a son, female genital mutilation (FGM), early and forced marriage, marriage by abduction, encouraging girls to be silent and subservient, shouldering domestic tasks on the girl, etc. The preference of having a son preference involves favouring the social, intellectual and physical development of a boy child over that of a girl child. Most of the time girls are required to quit school in order to take care of the household chores, or they are prevented from engaging in games and other activities with peers in order to stay home and supervise younger siblings. Girls are reduced to domestic labours both during childhood, and later in marriage.
Early marriage and abduction is common in Ethiopia, especially in rural settings whereby girls between the ages of 7 to 18 are often already married before the girl is physically, physiologically and psychologically ready to shoulder the responsibilities of marriage and child bearing, and many do not have access to basic sexual and reproductive health information or services. Complications from early marriage are deadly for a girl, one of them being complications from early pregnancy. Many girls attempt to escape this practice imposed on them by running away to big cities from rural parts of the country. Either they run away from early marriage or their parents send them to the city to work because they are poor. These children come to the capital with no preparation and no support. Most of them are hired as a domestic workers or sex workers or end up living on the street.
At the YWCA of Ethiopia, we offer support to young domestic house workers who are migrating from rural parts of Ethiopia. These teenage girls are often under the control of their employers, and they are paid very little money or even worse, no wage at all for their labour. Many of them send what little they have earned to their relatives in the countryside, leaving them empty handed by the end of the day. Having nothing in their hand, no education, nowhere to go, they have to stay serving their employers forever, or face a challenging life ahead if they run away from their employers. Once they escape, then they are exposed to rape, abuse, beating, street pregnancy, STI and HIV. It is very common to see teenage mothers on the street of Addis Ababa. They don’t know their rights or what is happening to their bodies, and they have no access to violence related service and SRH information.
At the YWCA of Ethiopia, we train these young women and their employers separately to build awareness on violence, coercion, peer pressure, sexual and reproductive health and sanitation for the benefit of young women and girls that are employed. By building support systems and financial skills, at least in the cities, the YWCA of Ethiopia attempts to offer a bit of hope for these girls and young women facing dire circumstances throughout their life time. These efforts in Ethiopia are supported by the World YWCA’s global advocacy and monitor the implementation of key international agreements on gender equality and the human right of women and girls, as well as encouraging faith communities to challenge religious and cultural norms that are harmful to girls and young women.
I thank you for the opportunity to share with you few words about these problems on this special day for women. It is special because this year marks 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. I feel glad that I have had the chance to make Amarech part of a historic event where people around the world converse about the challenges and celebrate the life of women and girls. I would like to mention that, while violence against children due to harmful traditional practices in Ethiopia is by no means harmful to girls only, girls are more exposed to violence due to social and cultural norms.
We must change these practices, and for this to happen leaders at all levels – religious leaders, government, community elders and civil society, must condemn harmful practices against the girl child.
Amarech means beautiful. I hope she has a life as good as her name!