Mengistie Tegenie’s four sisters were married before the age of 18. Bright and academically gifted, their schooling—like that of many young women in Ethiopia—stopped after their arranged marriages.
During his first year at university, Tegenie says he felt guilty that he was able to continue his studies while his sisters were not. For many young women, he adds, child marriage doesn’t just block them from career opportunities; it comes with the added risk of gender-based violence (GBV).
“I saw the impact of child marriage on all our lives, especially for women and girls who are disproportionately affected by violence. I knew it’s the men who also must speak up; that I’d have to be the one to make the change.”
Today, Tegenie, a GBV specialist for Norwegian Church Aid, has dedicated his life to ending child marriage and violence against women.
These threats, Tegenie says, have only been growing more severe: GBV has spiked amid a brutal two-year conflict, drought, and the COVID-19 pandemic, which have trapped women and girls in vulnerable conditions. Child marriages have also more than doubled in the country’s four hardest-hit regions.
In response, Tegenie and Norwegian Church Aid have partnered with UN Women and UNFPA to address attitudes and beliefs that perpetuate GBV and gender inequalities in several local Ethiopian communities. The initiative, started in 2021, is supported through a Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF) global grant allocation on GBV prevention and response that has been implemented in six countries, including Ethiopia.
Changing social norms begins at the grassroots
To change social norms, Tegenie says, awareness raising must begin at the grassroots level. With support from UN Women, Norwegian Church Aid held community conversations led by trained facilitators to discuss the ramifications of child marriage and violence against women. At the end of the dialogue, community leaders were asked to make public declarations denouncing these practices and add sanctions and other consequences into local bylaws.
“We want to engage men and boys and change their attitudes about these practices. We want them to be aware of how it affects the lives of women and girls and engage in community efforts to end violence against women and girls,” Tegenie says.
Ultimately, he acknowledges, social norm change takes a long time and requires the buy-in of community leaders. In many regions of Ethiopia, that includes faith leaders, some of whom have been promoting harmful practices against women and girls.
Tegenie and Norwegian Church Aid provided trainings for 48 faith leaders across Orthodox, Protestant, and Islamic traditions and encouraged the country’s top religious councils to issue their own declarations stating that GBV and child marriage have no basis in their religions. “These religious institutions influence the parish priests, the pastors, in the grassroots communities. That’s what changes norms,” he says.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of UN Women – Africa.