Sixteen-year-old Zala has big plans for her future. “I want to finish school and become a doctor. I like to help people and I want to treat patients, so they become healthy again,” says Zala, who lives in the Oromia Region in Eastern Ethiopia.
For some time in her young life, Zala did not dare to dream to go back to school. At the age of 12, she was forced to drop out of school to travel with her aunt to the Somali region in Ethiopia. What she did not know was that she was supposed to get married there.
“At that age, you don’t really understand what love or marriage is,” says Zala. “When my future husband approached me and said he loved me and wanted to marry me, I felt very insecure. I did not want to marry him. I was not interested. But my father had given his will. I did not have any other options and I was afraid of what my family would say.”
Zala only stayed for four months with her husband and his family. Throughout her marriage she felt a lot of pain and discomfort. Eventually, her mother came to visit her and convinced her daughter to come home with her. After returning to her family, she realized that she was pregnant, but later in the pregnancy she suffered a miscarriage.
In addition to the pain and the negative effects on health of being married at an early age, girls like Zala, once they are able to return to their family, are confronted with a lot of stigmas. Communities often reject divorced girls so they can’t return to school or enjoy a proper social life in their own villages. “I faced a lot of stigma after returning to my community, which is why I decided to move to Djibouti to find a job and earn some money,” says Zala with pain in her eyes.
Power to children and young people
To tackle the alarming numbers of child marriage and its implications on girls in the Oromia Region, Joining Forces for Africa has introduced different community and school-based programs in the districts of Babile and Chinaksen. SOS Children’s Villages in Ethiopia, as one of the implementing partners of these projects, provides support to increase child participation, conducting campaigns and awareness-raising events on children’s rights and early marriage, among other child protection topics. Now children and young people are taking the lead in efforts to eliminate early child marriage and other traditional practices that harm them.
Through functional and active children’s clubs, partnerships with local governments, and community-based child protection groups, the project aims to facilitate the communication and links between actors involved in child protection to identify and resolve child marriage issues.
In the first year after implementing the project in the Babile district, the number of child marriage cases has significantly decreased, and concurrently, there has been a significant increase in the enrollment of girls in school. The outcomes of the children’s platforms also had an immediate impact on communities, as religious leaders in the respective communities are now not providing their blessings to marriages involving children or with no full and explicit consent of women. The results of the project already provide strong evidence that child participation and child leadership significantly contribute to social change.
A role model for girls who return to school
When Zala returned from Djibouti, she initially refused to go back to school. “I was afraid of my peers and the community. People try to shame girls like me who go back to school at my age,” says Zala.
After receiving support from SOS Children’s Villages in Ethiopia through intensive counselling at home, Zala decided to return to school in 2021. “In the beginning, I felt uncomfortable, because I was much older than the other boys and girls in my class. But thanks to the support of SOS Children’s Villages and JOFA, I felt empowered and decided to tackle all those stigmas around girls who were married, but want to pursue their education. I want to learn, no matter the grade I am in, and not lose out to social stigmas,” says Zala with confidence in her voice.
Zala has become a role model in her school and community, advocating to end child marriage and raising awareness amongst her peers and their families on the negative implications of child marriage on girls’ health and development.
“There are a lot of other girls who are affected by child marriage and many boys and girls think it is normal to get married at an early age because it is a common practice in my community,” says Zala. “I want to show them that it’s possible to overcome stigmas and pursue education. We are organizing different social groups and initiatives. There is also an active girls club in my school that is meeting twice a month. A club leader from my school facilitates these meetings, where we can raise our concerns.”
“I want other girls to know that in order to live a happy and self-determined life, it is important to be educated. Even if you dropped out of school, it is never to late to return and catch up on your dreams.”
*Names changed to protect privacy
*Text by Christine Stolz, photos by Petterik Wiggers
 Joining Forces is an alliance of the six largest child-focused INGOs working to end all forms of violence against children.