Post written by Julie A. Cornell, Manager, Global Community Impact, Johnson & Johnson
“At the age of 14, I was married off to a man I’d never met. I gave birth to my first child at 16, and then another two years later. My relatives forced me to drop my education. I had no say in any decisions about the household.” Tamerie*
“I was forced to marry at 16. And then my husband’s family forced me to have a child, thinking that if I didn’t give birth, I’d leave him one day.” Zewudie*
In Ethiopia, two in every five girls are married before their 18th birthday, and one in five is forced to marry before age 15. In the Amhara region of Ethiopia where Tamerie and Zewudie live, the rates are higher, with nearly 45% of girls marrying before age 18. As a woman and especially as a mother to a young daughter, Tamerie and Zewudie’s stories of stolen childhoods take on a whole new meaning.
Early marriage is believed to be a sound economic decision for poor parents, but in reality, it brings a girl’s childhood to a halt. Denied access to education, health care, and a voice, married girls are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse and are more likely to die in childbirth. In the long term, they are less likely to have the skills needed to earn a living. Their children are more likely to suffer malnutrition and stunting, and experience higher rates of death than children born to mothers just a few years older. Child marriage remains a key barrier to economic empowerment and physical health and well-being, preventing young women from breaking the cycle of poverty.
The adoption of Global Goal target 5.3 identifies child marriage as a harmful practice that must be brought to an end. During a side event at the UN General Assembly in September, Mary Robinson, representing The Elders, expressed her relief that ending child marriage is at last a top priority. “I would never have believed that we would have 5.3,” she said. It is indeed a true indication that the global development community is finally recognizing that child marriage is a barrier to achieving gender equity and equality, and to broader economic prosperity.
Preventing child marriage is critical. We must also not forget the 15 million girls who are married, including those who have already become mothers. These ever-married girls need solutions that connect them to health, education, and opportunity. All the things denied from them for too long. Since 2014, Johnson & Johnson has partnered with CARE on TESFA*, a program designed to improve the lives of married, widowed and divorced adolescents. Groups of teenagers gather weekly to learn about sexual and reproductive health, and learn how to save and invest money. These peer mentoring groups also give them the courage they need to have difficult conversations with their husbands and in-laws. Simultaneously, groups of village leaders and community members including the girls’ own fathers, husbands, and fathers-in-law, gather to discuss how they can better support these courageous young women. With this knowledge and support from the community comes empowerment to save money, access health care, and even go back to school.
As one young woman said, “working with TESFA, I got the courage to call my husband by his first name.” And Tamerie, who’d once had no voice in her household, was able to learn how to communicate with her husband and mother-in-law. “Currently, my husband is so supportive, and we now use contraception, and I am able to save money.” Zewudie put the knowledge and information she received to work. She spoke with her husband and together, they decided to delay having more children, and took a loan so they could afford irrigation for their small farm.
Girls have so much potential, so many dreams that can – and must – be realized. Young women like Tamerie and Zewudie must be empowered, and be recognized as equal members of their communities in order to break the cycle of poverty perpetuated by child marriage. On this International Day of the Girl, I challenge you to lift your voice with the thousands of global advocates, calling to end the practice for good so that every girl has the childhood she deserves. Lend your voice, to give them a voice.
In honor of International Day of the Girl, Johnson & Johnson will be spotlighting partners delivering #SDGs for girls. Join our #HerFuture video storytelling hour on October 11, at 1p.m.
*Tamerie and Zewudie’s last names have been omitted to protect their privacy.
*TESFA stands for Toward Improved Economic and Sexual/Reproductive Health Outcomes for Adolescent Girls