11/16/2012 02:31 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

An Unhappy Wedding


We slid to the right side of the van to take photos of what our driver said was a wedding party. There atop a mule was a small figure completely covered in a white "shama," or shawl. Her face was not visible, her feet were dangling and she was hunched over clinging to the saddle. To our surprise, the wedding party surrounding the mule consisted only of men, void of the colorful parasols and ululating of most happy wedding processions I had seen in Ethiopia. As we drew up next to them, some of the men suddenly charged at our van shaking their fists and walking sticks at us, clearly angry that we were taking photos. For a moment we thought they might even attack the vehicle. What we had stumbled upon was not a joyful wedding procession but most likely the forced and illegal marriage of a young girl.

At the time, we happened to be visiting Ethiopia, but there are plenty of other places in the world where this story unfolds regularly -- too many places. In Ethiopia, 60 percent of girls are married before the age of 17. Some, like Melka, find ways to escape. Most don't. Early and/or forced marriage is illegal in most countries, including Ethiopia, but the practice persists, especially in rural communities where poverty is rampant and many men are too poor to pay for a bride. The worst situation is when a young girl is abducted, raped and then returned to her family as "spoiled goods" considered only good for giving away to the rapist for marriage to keep the family from being shamed. These innocent girls are victimized multiple times. As long as women and girls are viewed, treated and sold as property, girls who are too young will be sold or raped for marriage.

But there are solutions. Margaret Mead, a well-known anthropologist once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing which has."

Traveling with me on that trip to Ethiopia was a group of women, thoughtful, committed women who are passionate about changing the world by educating girls and helping them stay in school. They are part of a North Carolina chapter of Women of Vision, a volunteer program of World Vision, and they are committed to protecting and empowering girls in Ethiopia. They are indeed changing the world. We were with World Vision in Ethiopia to visit a school and education program that these volunteers helped support through fundraising. Even more important than the buildings, the program helps World Vision train female teachers to start girls' clubs and after school tutorials to provide girls and boys a safe place to discuss this issue and seek solutions together.

The girls' clubs have had amazing success. The teachers were so excited to share with us stories of abductions that were prevented or stopped thanks in large part to these brave women. The community elders acknowledged that only two girls had been abducted this year, down from eight the year before. Tough as that is to hear -- it is success.

As we were celebrating so many good things that day in Ethiopia, including the growing voice of the community's women, our group looked directly at the elders and stated that by the next visit we hoped there would not be a single abduction of a girl. This will involve the monumental task of changing the foundational values and beliefs of everyone in their community. No small task! The elders nodded vigorously. Most of them were men and were facing the ire of some remarkable and well-educated women. The Ethiopian women loved it and they want to be heard, considered, and able to support their community just like the women from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Our final visit was in the home of a 15-year-old girl who was sponsored by one of the Women of Vision members. This young girl was likely not too different in age from the girl we saw on the mule. When the family heard rumors their daughter was at risk of rape and abduction, they moved her to a safe place to finish secondary school. With the support and encouragement of the World Vision staff in Ethiopia, both parents are now convinced that their capable daughter deserves to be protected and should finish secondary school.

The community knows we will be back -- the passionate women of Charlotte visit every two years. And we will ask if the community has been able to eliminate all abductions. Perhaps we will also have the chance to tell them that October 11 has been declared International Day of the Girl and that worldwide we are standing together to end forced and early marriage.