Keeping Girls in School: Addressing Early Marriage and Breaking Barriers to Reproductive Health Care


Haregnesh Abetneh is 20 and lives in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. At age three, she was given away in a “promising” marriage. I met Haregnesh on a trip to Ethiopia recently and was awed by her story.

“When I turned 8,” Haregnesh said, “I was already divorced. I wanted to attend school, but my family wanted me to enter another marriage. This created a challenge, but I kept telling my parents that I did not want to get married again. I saw educated people and the difference in their lives. I also had friends who were in early marriages, who began having children very young. I watched as they had no food to eat or feed their children and they just kept getting pregnant and having babies. Some of them experienced prolonged labor and fistula. I could see that they were suffering and I wanted my future to be different.”

Over the last five years as I’ve worked at Pathfinder, I have seen that when girls have educational opportunities, they are empowered to improve their reproductive health and their lives. Conversely, when they are denied education, they are at a higher risk of poverty, HIV and AIDS, gender-based violence, and other harmful traditional practices. Getting and keeping girls in school is one of the best ways to foster later and chosen marriage, thus reducing the risk of maternal death from early child birth. With this fundamental belief in mind, Pathfinder International provides educational support intervention to girls like Haregnesh as an integral part of women and girls’ empowerment efforts.

“The money I receive through this scholarship program has helped me buy everything I need for school,” said Haregnesh. “Each month, I receive Birr 100 (roughly US $6.00) and after I use a certain amount for school materials, I make sure to save the rest. I have been able to buy two sheep for our family, and now we have four. I also rented land for our family to farm, and now we grow tej, wheat, and maize to feed our family and to sell to help us earn more money. When I complete school this year, I want to go to college and become a nurse or a midwife. I want to empower pregnant women, to help them.”

More girls like Haregnesh will soon be able to celebrate. Last week, The Elders announced a global initiative to end child marriage with organizations focused on these issues, including Pathfinder International, joining the Girls Not Brides initiative. An estimated 10 million girls worldwide are forced to marry before their 18th birthdays—more than 25,000 girls a day. Early marriage is a human rights issue and a barrier to health care, education, and prosperity. By keeping girls in school and changing this social norm, girls have an opportunity to change their future and that of their family and their community.

For those interested in taking action to end child marriage and break down barriers to sexual and reproductive health care, I encourage you to visit www.pathfinder.org/BreakingBarriers.

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