On a Sunday in February 2017, in the rural community of Shani Kondala, Ethiopia, 13-year-old Asmau Kamal got up earlier than usual. She had her regular chores: fetching water, sweeping her family compound and walking two kilometres to wash her clothes at the river. But there was something even more important on her to-do list.
She headed to school, even though it was closed for the semester break, where the end-of-semester marks were displayed on the bulletin board in front of the administration office. She wanted to see if she was still among the top 10 of all Grade 6 students. She was.
Arriving back home, filled with pride at her accomplishment, she saw that the front room of the mudbrick bungalow where she lived with her parents and six of her 10 siblings was crowded with elders from the community. No one would tell her what was going on, and she was quickly shooed out of the room.
Her older sister broke the news: Asmau was going to be married the next day. The elders had come to her home on behalf of one of her older brother’s friends—a young man she hardly knew—to make a formal offer for her hand in marriage.
Asmau saw her future break in an instant. If she was married, she would never finish her studies, never become a teacher, never get a chance to meet a man she truly loved.
“I started crying in front of the elders and my parents, and I begged them not to send me away,” Asmau remembers, speaking in the Oromigna language through a translator.
Her pleas didn’t matter. On Monday, instead of returning to school, she would move in with her new husband and his family—the marriage forcing her to drop out of school, like many young brides across rural Ethiopia.
But Asmau wasn’t any girl. She was a member of the Girls’ Club at Shani Kondala Primary School. The fight for her education, for her right to determine her own life, was only beginning.
On Monday morning, when Asmau did not show up to school, her best friend Kemila Aliyi, 15, wondered why.
“As we are not neighbours, I asked some boys who used to come with her to school if she was sick,” says Kemila. “They told me that when they went to her house to call her to walk to school together as usual, they heard she had gotten married.”
This seemed impossible. Kemila and Asmau both planned to attend university. In fact, she and Asmau joined the Girls’ Club in 2016 to help shift the community’s perspective from prioritizing early marriage to girls’ education. They’d even intervened on behalf of girls who didn’t consent to their marriage, to lobby to end the unions and get the girls back into the classroom. Kemila doubted Asmau’s marriage was consensual, and she took her suspicions to the club.
The Girls’ Club was established with the support of imagine1day—WE’s Ethiopian in-country partner—to create awareness about the importance of education for all children, especially girls. The top-ranking student in the class, Kemila believed deeply in this advocacy, as her two older sisters had gone into careers as a government worker and a teacher after high school. Her passion earned her the deputy head position in the club, and now her best friend was in jeopardy.
In cases of non-consensual marriage the club has a tried-and-true process, because they are racing against time. In Shani Kondala, the first 15 days of marriage is a congratulatory grace period. But on the 16th day, the newlyweds visit the bride’s family, and when they return to the husband’s home the bride is officially considered a wife. Once this happens, leaving a marriage becomes much harder for women. Those who do leave can face stigma and discrimination in the community—even retaliation from the husband’s family.
That Monday was Day Two of Asmau’s marriage.
Against this countdown, the Girls’ Club set to work. First, they chose a committee of five members to inform school officials of their suspicions. Next, the committee, along with the school principal and Asmau’s homeroom teacher, needed to visit Asmau’s family to confirm whether the wedding was consensual or not. If it wasn’t, the girls would lobby both families to dissolve or postpone the marriage and allow Asmau to return to school.
By the time the committee was able to arrange a visit with Asmau’s family, she had been married for five days.
Like most parents, Asmau’s parents first denied that she’d been married off, telling the visiting committee that she had simply gone out to run some errands and would be back soon. But when Kemila told them what she’d heard, they confirmed that it was true. What followed was an impassioned discussion between the family and the girls as the committee worked to convince Asmau’s parents to dissolve the marriage.
“We told them that an education is more valuable than a marriage,” said Kemila. “Even if a girl marries a wealthy husband his money is going to finish some day, but her knowledge is going to be with her forever, no matter what.”
Kamal Abdullah Iyye, Asmau’s father, remembers the argument well. “We told them that that Shar’ia does not permit a wife leaving her husband after marriage,” he said. “But then they told us that Shar’ia only allows children to marry after 18 years of age, and that we have to let Asmau continue her studies otherwise we will be breaking the law.”
That convinced them. That same day, the committee went to Asmau’s husband’s family to make their case. This proved more challenging. For the next 10 days, the committee met several times to persuade the family—with little progress. As they worked, they knew that time was running out.
For Asmau, married life was everything she’d feared. She desperately wanted to return to school, but her new husband forbade it. During the wedding, she’d cried in despair while he and his family cheerfully danced and sang around her. As the clock ticked down and Asmau realized that her friends were making no progress, her dread increased.
On the morning of the 15th day of her marriage, with her husband’s family refusing to budge, Asmau woke up early and told her mother-in-law that she was going to the river to fetch water. Instead, she ran away—back to her parent’s house.
“She was crying a lot and telling us that she doesn’t want to live with her husband anymore,” Iyye, her father, remembers. “But we had already changed our mind. We all agreed that she shouldn’t go back to her husband.”
Asmau’s parents lobbied on her behalf. The marriage was dissolved.
Almost a year later, 14-year-old Asmau is back in school. The bubbly seventh grader now laughs as she recalls her 15-day marriage. Her parents have agreed to allow her to marry whenever she feels ready. At the start of the term her father bought her an exercise book and a pen to show his support for her education. He’s promised to keep her three younger sisters in school as well.
As for her rank? Asmau is 13 out of 72 students. But she’s not worried; she has plenty of time to get back on top.
“I want to be a teacher, because if I am a teacher I can get the chance to be head of the Girls’ Club and help girls like me,” she said. “I have learned that I have so many options, so I am going to use all of them to do my level best to fight for my rights.”
Asmau is another victory for the Girls’ Club—teenagers who are prepared to use every means available to help a fellow student. In fact, in 2017, when the family of a Grade 8 student who had been forced to marry refused to dissolve the union, the club sued the family in district court and won. The girl is now in high school.
The club’s formidable reputation is beginning to precede itself in the community.
“Most of the time, parents of the girl will deny that they forced her to marry and say that it is by her consent,” said Kemila, with a shake of her head. “But most of the girls we go to intervene for, they want to come with us.”
And so, the club continues its work.
Chinelo Onwualu is a writer, editor and shameless dog person. A communications consultant who's lived in 7 countries, she loves a good story whether she's the one telling it or not.