“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.
According to World Health Organisation figures, 14.2 million girls under the age of 15 are forced into marriage each year.
Most come from India, the Middle East, and like Alemtsahye herself, from sub-Saharan Africa – Niger, Chad, the Central African Republic and Ethiopia among them.
The consequences 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.’
Child marriage is an appalling violation of human rights and robs girls of their education, health and long-term prospects,’ comments Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of UNFPA.
I was in school,’ she remembers, ‘although I stopped the school when I was married. I do have happy memories of childhood – it was just eat and play.‘
All that ended when it was decided she would marry a boy, who until the day of their wedding, she had never met.
‘I didn’t know him,’ she says. ‘I was OK when I saw him – he was a child like me. He was upset as well, the same like me… he was 16 years old.‘
As Alemtsahye’s story reveals, girls aren’t the only victims of forced marriages, although as Jacqui Hunt, London Director of campaigning charity Equality Now makes clear, their experience is often far more traumatic.
‘Boys do get married young and that is an issue that needs to be addressed,’ she explains. ‘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.’
While Alemtsahye was, at least, given a husband closer to her own age, the wedding meant leaving home, leaving school and beginning life as a traditional Ethiopian wife.
‘I was collecting water, wood and cooking for my husband and the days were like that,’ she remembers.
‘The water was far away and not near to our house. We would go far, then come back and I would cook for my husband.‘
By the time she was 13, Alemtsahye, although still a child herself, had a baby son, Tefsalen, now 25, to care for as well.
She remembers the pregnancy and birth as a traumatic time, made worse by the fact that her immature body couldn’t cope with the physical demands of carrying a baby.
‘When I was pregnant, it was painful and I cried,’ she recalls. ‘And also when the baby was delivered it was so painful because I was a child.’
But if pregnancy was difficult, motherhood was even tougher and made worse 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, among them, Alemtsahye’s young husband who was just 19 when he was killed fighting with rebel forces to overthrow Ethiopia’s barbarous Marxist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam.