In 2008, in the Amhara Region of NW Ethiopia, we met Wube-Enat for the first time. It was the eve of her wedding day. She was ten years old, and promised to Abebe, a fifteen-year-old young man. Abebe was studying to be a deacon in the Orthodox Christian Church, and he first saw Wube-Enat when he was out collecting alms. He decided that she would be his future wife. Abebe went home that evening, and asked his elders to arrange the marriage.
The physical consequences of early marriage can be severe. Pregnancy before a girl’s body is fully formed can lead to a difficult and prolonged labor. If she survives, she could be left with permanent damage.
Our initial assumption upon meeting Wube-Enat was that she would become pregnant and due to her age and size, perhaps suffer one of the consequences of child marriage - an obstetric fistula.
However, true to what her father told us on the day of the marriage, this celebration was just a betrothal, a symbolic promise. Her father knew the law: that the legal age of marriage was 18 years. Wube-Enat would remain in school, and not reunite with Abebe until she was at least 15 years old.
Speaking to Wube-Enat’s father on the day of the marriage, he told us:
“She is at school, and I have to consider the law. Both the fathers, his father and myself, we talked about their relationship. We believe they have to finish studying, and we decided not to let them have a relationship at this stage. The wedding is just a promise. It’s nothing. Now it’s happened. She is having her honeymoon here; he’s having his celebration at his place. They’re having a big ceremony for him. As for me, this is as far as I go. Tomorrow she has to go back to school. As far as the wedding goes, I’ve fulfilled my obligations.”
In June 2012, we returned to the Amhara region. We were determined, if we could, to find the whereabouts of Wube-Enat and Abebe. Ambachew, our dedicated driver, drove our director Nancy to the approximate area where Abebe lived, stopping every few miles to ask people passing on the road if they recognized the couple in the photograph Nancy carried - Wube-Enat and Abebe.
At our fourth stop, a man recognized Abebe and said to Nancy that if she could wait 45 minutes, he would bring Abebe to her. Find him he did, and Nancy and Abebe reunited along with his local friends.
Abebe told Nancy that he had visited Wube-Enat’s home on religious occasions but they had not spent time together as married couple as custom wouldn't permit this. Abebe confied to Nancy that he did he not feel that he could talk with Wube-Enat, as she was too shy. Nancy learned that the respective elders of both families had agreed that in a few months time, Wube-Enat and Abebe might come together.
In May 2013, Nancy was again working in this area and arrived unannounced at Abebe’s home. To her delight, she found that Wube-Enat had arrived two days earlier to visit Abebe! Wube-Enat was to stay for only 5 days, as she had to complete her grade 7 education. In a few months time, the elders of the families would meet to decide when it was appropriate for them to formally live together.
In 2016, we visited again. This time we found that Wube-Enat and Abebe had been living together as husband and wife for the past nine months. Wube-Enat was a poised, confident young woman, in grade eight, who planned to continue her education until grade twelve - a major achievement for an Amhara woman.
Even more heartening was the news that Abebe had not only supported Wube-Enat’s education but was supporting her decision to take family planning.
Wube-Enat has been taking the Depo Provera injection every three months, ensuring that she has control over her reproductive future.
Our film Child Marriage, featuring Wube-Enat’s story, was used in a campaign by the UNFPA, to educate Amhara women about their reproductive health care choices, and the impact of child marriage.
Wube-Enat’s story is a perfect illustration of what education and access to healthcare can give to women. With education and family planning, she can space her children and educate them. The ripple effect will lead to more empowered Amhara women, and a stronger Ethiopia.
However, not all stories like Wube-Enat’s have such a lovely ending. Each year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18. That is 28 girls every minute that are married too soon, endangering their personal development and well-being. With more young people on our planet than ever before, child marriage is a human rights violation that we must end to achieve a fairer future for all.
We are thrilled to announce that the book In SafeHands featuring photography by our director Nancy Durrell McKenna, was launched on November 28th, 2016. As well as celebrating the work of SafeHands for Mothers, the book is photographic tribute to the stories of extraordinary women and their families in rural Africa.
Signed copies of the book are available for £45 plus postage and package. Email us to place an order.