Ethiopian child brides are using marriage as a path to foreign jobs, revealed a new study by London-based think tank Overseas Development Institute. There is a rising trend of girls marrying briefly, then divorcing and migrating to join the “maid trade” in the Middle East.
Among Muslims in Ethiopia, there is a sentiment that it is immoral for girls who have reached puberty to remain unmarried. But as soon as a girl has married and performed her sexual “duty,” parents believe they have fulfilled their religious obligations.
It has therefore become common for parents in Ethiopia to marry off their daughters briefly, and then insist on divorce. The daughter is then expected to find work — usually by migrating to the Middle East where there are more work opportunities for higher pay — and send money home to her parents. Unfortunately, girls that migrate often face sexual abuse. But if a girl has already been “deflowered” in a way deemed virtuous by the community, a rape will not bring as much disgrace as it would to a virgin.
The ODI released its findings for the benefit of the first Girl Summit, hosted on July 22 in an effort to end female genital mutilation and child marriage within a generation. The think tank warned that parents who view their daughters as commodities are contributing to a cycle of child labor and are forcing girls to enter into abusive or unwanted marriages. Every day, 39,000 child brides are married, most of whom have no choice in the matter.
However, the ODI found that some girls choose to migrate for employment purposes in order to support their families. It is illegal for Ethiopian children under 18 to migrate for work, but the issue is easily dodged by those who use fake IDs. These girls face a lengthy and dangerous journey, which usually involves a week-long trek to Djibouti, a boat ride to Yemen under the cover of night and two to three weeks of traveling by road to Saudi Arabia.
Girls who make the journey often settle in Saudi Arabia and find work as maids. The money they send home helps their families pay debts, buy food and secure access to electricity and water.
But earlier this year, Saudi authorities made a massive effort to rid the country of illegal immigrants. Within three months, they deported more than 250,000 foreign workers. One affected Ethiopian girl and former child bride said, “Seeing my family suffering here, I don’t want to remarry, I just want to support my family. I want to go back to the Middle East. There’s no other option because the wage is really low here.”
Yet girls are still pouring into Saudi Arabia, often following the trend of partaking in a child marriage, then getting divorced. Although most go for the sake of their families, some have been enticed by false promises of riches by illegal brokers. The reality is that many will face harsh working conditions, lower than promised pay, isolation or even abuse. Only if parents contribute to breaking the cycle can conditions improve for these girls.
– Mari LeGagnoux