AFAMBO, Ethiopia -- From birth, Kadiga Mohammed was set to marry her first and eldest cousin, a traditional practice known as 'absuma' in her community in the Afar Region of Ethiopia.
When she turned 16, her parents began to prepare for the wedding. But Kadiga was filled with dread -- she did not want to marry the man they had selected for her.
She mustered the courage to tell them that she did not wish to go through with the marriage, an act of rebellion that enraged them. They refused her pleas to cancel the wedding.
In desperation, Kadiga turned to her local district council and, later, to the district Women's Affairs Office.
She was fortunate. After her parents spoke with authorities, they relented.
A deeply rooted tradition
According to the 2011 Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey, the Afar Region has the second-highest child marriage prevalence in the country.
Many parents insist their daughters marry early, fearing the girls might otherwise become pregnant before marriage, which is considered a disgrace to their families and communities.
But child marriage often derails a girls' education. "In my culture, when a girl gets married, she drops out of school and stays at home to take care of household chores," Kadiga said.
Child marriage also contributes to high rates of maternal mortality; adolescent pregnancies are higher-risk for both mothers and their babies.
Bringing change to the community
Kadiga says she was emboldened to take a stand thanks to the Programme on the Prevention of Child Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), an initiative supported by UNFPA, with funding from the UN Association of Sweden. Her community is one of seven where the programme is being implemented, in collaboration with the Afambo District Women, Children and Youth Affairs Office.
Through the programme, Kadiga's school established a girls' club where students discuss issues such as child marriage, FGM/C, and HIV and AIDS.
The Afambo District Women, Children and Youth Affairs Office also works with a committee of local leaders -- including district officials, law enforcement personnel, religious and clan leaders, and school officials. Committee members and other leaders have received training on the harmful effects of child marriage and FGM/C, and they have agreed to work together to end these practices.
In addition, every two weeks, a community conversation is held to raise awareness of the importance of keeping girls in school and ensuring they are not married until reaching at least 18 years old. Spiritual leaders also explain that FGM/C is not condoned by religious doctrine.
Still, life has not been easy for Kadiga since she refused to marry her cousin.
"I am being ridiculed by the community for resisting my parents' arrangement," she said.
Some are fearful that other girls may follow suit, she said, and a few parents have considered pulling their daughters out of her school.
Kadiga still ended up marrying early, at age 17. But, she says, she married a man of her choosing, and she has been able to continue attending school.
Today, at age 18, she is in grade 7 and continues to embrace the Programme on the Prevention of Child Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). She has become a vocal opponent of FGM/C.
Kadiga was subjected to a form of the practice -- infibulation -- when she was younger, and she fears the resulting scars may pose a problem when she has a baby. Because of this, she plans to deliver at a health facility, under the care of a skilled birth attendant.
"I will never subject my child to FGM/C if she happens to be a girl," she said, "and I will teach her the consequences of the practice early on."
She says she does not regret the choices she has made. Girls sometimes approach her to tell her she is their role model.
As for her critics, Kadiga shrugs off their disapproval. "All this is nothing to me. I will keep very strong and go on," she said.
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