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First comes school, then comes marriage

In the Amhara region of Ethiopia child marriage rates are among the highest in the world. Half of all Amharan girls are married before their 15th birthday. Many families do not send girls to school because they cannot afford the cost of essential items like pencils and paper. Forty-five percent of all girls in Amhara aged 15-19 cannot read.

In 2005, in collaboration with the Nike Foundation, we began our support of Berhane Hewan, a UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and Population Council project to keep girls in school, delay early marriage, and address the social isolation of adolescent unmarried and married girls.

For the project, participants and community members are urged to take part in community-wide conversations on early marriage and sexual and reproductive health issues affecting girls. Community mentors teach the young girls literacy, life skills, health and HIV education, and how to save money. Participants also receive support to stay in school through involvement in “girls’ groups,” which convene outside of school, and are provided with school materials such as notebooks, pens, and pencils.

Girls who are not enrolled in school are encouraged to learn how to read and write by participating in non-formal education clubs that teach subjects such as the Amharic alphabet, simple arithmetic, and environmental science. After 18 months of participation, these girls are eligible to go to school.

To empower the girls and address the economic factors that influence child marriage, the program provides an economic incentive – such as a $25 sheep or two hens – to girls who complete two years of the program and delay marriage. The project also constructs community water points to improve access to water, reduce the time girls spend fetching water for their families, and improve community health. 

More than 12,000 girls are part of the program.

Girls who have participated in the program are more likely than other girls in their communities to remain in school, be unmarried and be better educated about sexual and reproductive health. It has also spawned a sister activity for married girls, who meet once a week to obtain health information, peer interaction and social support. Among married girls, girls living in the project site were nearly three times more likely to use family planning methods.

You can support programs like these and invest in the future of adolescent girls today.