In Ethiopia, child marriage rates are among the highest in the world. According to Girls Not Brides, 40% of girls marry before their 18th birthday, and 14% marry before they turn 15. Rates of child marriage are the highest in the Amhara region and girls from poor households and rural areas are the most vulnerable. The Ethiopian government and organizations such as UNICEF are working to combat the issue, and as a result, the rate of child marriage in Ethiopia has declined over the past two decades.
Child Marriage Rates in Ethiopia
From 2005 to 2016, the percentage of women in Ethiopia that marry before their 18th birthday slightly declined. The rates of child marriage for under 15-year-old girls saw an even greater decrease. However, according to UNICEF, rates of child marriage increased once again in 2022 as a result of severe droughts. The drought, which killed livestock and brought famine, meant that parents were more likely to marry off their daughters in order to secure dowries that help to feed the rest of their family. In fact, according to government sources, child marriage rates increased by 119% in 2022 in the areas worst affected by the drought. These include Oromia, Somali and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNP).
Causes of Child Marriage
Child marriage and poverty are undoubtedly linked, and, according to Girls Not Brides, 58% of girls living in the poorest households in Ethiopia marry before they turn 18. However, a 2016 UNICEF report revealed that poverty is not the strongest driving force of child marriage in Ethiopia and that girls from richer families are also at risk.
Wealthy families often use child marriage to demonstrate social status or consolidate wealth, using young girls to obtain financial security for their families. In Amhara particularly, promising a young child in marriage is seen as a way to form alliances with other affluent families. Additionally, bridewealth payments are customary in Southern Ethiopia and are a vital form of income for many families.
UNICEF reported that gender and cultural norms are the most significant contributor to high child marriage rates. Ethiopian culture views girls as wives and mothers, placing a low value on female education. There is a stigma surrounding premarital pregnancy and the idea that girls are “impure” if they do not marry at a young age is widely accepted, with many parents believing that marriage between the ages of 15 and 18 is not early.
Many girls do not get to receive education because of these gender norms, but also because their parents fear that if they are sent away to secondary school they will be raped or abducted. There is a clear correlation between education levels and child marriage rates. According to Girls Not Brides, around 68% of Ethiopian girls with no education marry before they turn 18 compared with 13% of girls who received full secondary education.
Combating Child Marriage
The UNICEF-UNFPA Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage is a multi-donor program, launched in 2016, of which Ethiopia is a focus country. In 2020, the program identified 3,749 child marriages, and law enforcement subsequently prevented 2,051 of these, Girls Not Brides reports. One strategy it employs to decrease rates of child marriage in Ethiopia is keeping adolescent girls in education, and in 2018 a total of 73,771 girls remained in education as a result of the program’s efforts.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a setback for the program, however, it continued to operate and supported 5.1 million of 24 million children to continue education by way of online programs and radio.
Commitment from the Ethiopian Government
According to the 2019 UNICEF report, at the first global Girl Summit held in London in 2014, the Ethiopian government pledged to end child marriage in Ethiopia by the year 2025. In 2019, the president of Ethiopia presented the National Costed Roadmap to End Child Marriage and FGM/C 2020-2024. The Ministry of Women, Children and Youth created the roadmap with the support of UNICEF and UNFPA.
It is a five-year plan that outlines five pillar strategies to eliminate child marriage by the year 2025, such as community engagement with religious and political leaders; with the aim of increasing investment in young girls and their education. It works to reinforce the commitments made by the Ethiopian government in 2014. The Roadmap estimates that to achieve this goal, progress will need to be 10 times faster than it has been over the past decade.
The five-year roadmap will cost 2.72 billion Ethiopian Birr to implement, a figure which equates to around £40 million.
Elimination of Child Marriage
If Ethiopia achieves the 2025 target, the World Bank/International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) estimates that ending child marriage in Ethiopia could generate a 9.3% rise in earnings for women who marry early, and up to $1.5 billion in additional earnings and productivity for the whole country, according to Girls Not Brides. Currently, Ethiopia’s child marriage rates remain among the highest in the world, but there is hope that with the implementation of the roadmap, rates could decline and help the eradication of child marriage in Ethiopia.
– Lily Cooper