Child marriage fuels ignorance

9th September 2005 at 01:00
When you are a bride at just 10, school is no longer an option. Louise Tickle reports from the Horn of Africa in the run-up to next week's UN summit


In the searing midday heat, goats and donkeys stand motionless but outside an armadillo-shaped hut Ferhiya Siad, 16, is busy, expertly weaving the rush matting used to cover her home.

Ferhiya was taken out of school at 13 because her parents could not afford to spare her from working at home, herding, fetching water, milking cows and preparing food.

The culture of marrying early - age ten is common - to save families the cost of keeping girls is so strong here that some girls jump before they are pushed.

Ferhiya, fell in love and married at 15 in the mistaken belief that she would escape the drudgery of working at home. "It was my ignorance and madness," she says ruefully. "My life was better when I was a student. I liked the village school, but I have no time to go now I am married." Of her friends, only one remains at school. The rest are married too.

The Somali region, where Ferhiya lives, is a vast plain in south-east Ethiopia, scattered with small villages, most not connected to the outside world by road, electricity or telephone. The people herd cattle and grow maize and sorghum.

Only 10 per cent of girls enrol in school in the first place, half as many as boys. To attend one of the few government-run schools that do exist, children must walk up to eight miles.

At least in the Somali region, marriage by kidnapping is not tolerated - the penalties enforced by elders would be too severe. But in the rest of Ethiopia the practice - where girls are seized and taken to a distant village to be married against their will - is the norm.

According to Unicef, last year nationally 69 per cent of marriages took place following abduction. In two regions, Oromiya and Afar, the rate was 92 and 80 per cent respectively. As a result, when schools are far from home, as most are in rural Ethiopia, parents are unwilling to let their daughters risk kidnap daily as they walk to and from school.

When the largest gathering ever of world leaders takes place at the United Nations next week, UN secretary general Kofi Annan will urge them to step up their commitment to the millennium development goals set in 2000.

These include pledges to ensure every child in the world gets a full primary education by 2015 and to end the disparity between boys and girls in school by 2005 and in tertiary education by 2015.

The Ethiopian government claims to be on course to achieve both 2015 goals and has worked harder than many countries to tackle barriers to girls'


It has banned abduction and marriage before the age of 18 - though enforcing the laws in remote areas will be hard. It has changed the curriculum to acknowledge the existence of women and agreed to fund alternative village schools close to girls' families.

Teacher-training colleges have cut entry requirements to encourage women to apply and offer them extra tutoring and universities have achieved a 30 per cent female entry rate.

But a new report by Save the Children, Unicef and Unesco says high drop-out rates among Ethiopia's girls at the upper levels of primary mean that few go on to secondary education. By the end of 12 years of schooling, the pool of female students qualified for further education is tiny.

Anna Taylor, head of education and health at Save the Children,J saysJEthiopian plans for universal primary education require a 75 per cent rise in spending toJ$800 millionJin the next ten years.JJJJJ "The Ethiopian government already contributes 17 per cent of their current education budget but there is a still a big funding gap.

"A significant proportion of this shortfall must come fromJinternationalJdonorsJfor Ethiopia to meet theJ2015Jgoals."

For instance the country will needJ280,000 more teachers - especially female teachers - to be trainedJbut can only afford to train 6,000 a year, which will leave it 220,000 short. And then there is the barrier of poverty: sending girls to school represents a double economic loss because they no longer work for the family and they can't bring in a dowry.

For Ferhiya, inside the dark interior of her hut, that means a life of boredom awaits. "I get up when the sun rises, prepare porridge for breakfast, then milk the cows and take care of other livestock," she says.

"I clean the dung and spread it on the compound, I weave mats for the house, fetch water, then I have to make lunch. It is the same every day."

Would she recommend early marriage to other girls? "No," she says simply."I miss the benefits I got from education, and don't want other girls to miss it too."

My Best Teacher, Friday, 4 Taking Stock of Girls' Education in Ethiopia, Save the Children, Unicef, Unesco

Will world ignore goals for girls?

* The UN World Summit, attended by 170 world leaders from September 14-16 in New York, aims to renew their commitment to eight millennium development goals and discuss ways to meet them

* Two of the goals are education pledges: to ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling, and to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2005, and at all levels by 2015

* The US ambassador to the UN has been pressing to delete all mention of the goals from the agenda. Make Poverty History says ignoring them will mean the world has lost an opportunity to take stock of has been achieved and what needs to be done to educate girls

* Seventy countries look set to miss the 2015 target of providing primary education to every child and 75 are set to miss the 2015 target on parity of girls and boys finishing seondary school

* One hundred million children across the world are missing out on school; 60m of those are girls

* Children born to educated mothers are twice as likely to live until their fifth birthday, and educated girls tend to marry later, have fewer children and are less likely to become HIV-positive

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