“Who in this room has a friend or relative who has been married before the age of 18?”
Safe space members at Wibur Primary School. Photo: Hilina Abebe/NCA.
In a classroom in Gambella, six hands are slowly raised out of a group of 17 adolescent girls.
Apio Apiew Opap, 15, an 8th grade student is among those who raised her hands. - My 16-year-old cousin...she used to attend school but became pregnant. She gave birth a year ago and she is now married. She has not been back to school since, says Apio.
Every Thursday, after school is over, a group of girls between the ages of 10-19 gather at a safe space in Wibur Primary School. Led by two mentors Ariet and Muluwork, the group discuss topics of child marriage, sexual reproductive health, HIVAIDS , life skills and leadership.
Apio is one of the safe space members who took part for three months and will soon graduate from the programme. She says the safe space has given her a good ground to navigate issues such as resisting pressure to get married early. - Most families allow their daughters to get married because they struggle financially, and the dowry helps, says Apio. - The lessons I have learned here have helped me to know how I can protect myself from the pressure of getting married early. I understood well how early marriage will affect me, my education, and my future.
- I will not agree to be married at this age, she adds.
Meron Ambachew (left) and Apio Apiew Opap (right), safe space members at Wibur Primary School. Photo: Hilina Abebe/NCA.
Another member of the safe space, Meron Ambachew, 14, says she was able to take the conversation raised in the safe space back to her parents. One issue is menstruation and sanitary pads, a topic that is barely addressed between parents and children. - Recently, I informed my father about the sanitary pads I have received here and told him about what I learned. He has been supportive of my participation, she says.
The eldest of three, Meron says her dream is to pursue her education and support her parents.
Muluwork and Ariet, mentors, talk to safe space members at Wibur Primary School. Photo: Hilina Abebe/NCA.
For most adolescent girls in Ethiopia, accessing information that is determinantal to their sexual reproductive health & rights— and especially in a setting that is “safe” for them to openly discuss these issues is quite limited. Social norms and the unavailability of such spaces are among several factors. In Gambella region, where the prevalence of child marriage is one of the highest, the vulnerability of adolescent girls to pregnancy, maternal mortality, gender-based violence is even more pronounced. Few girls attend primary school, and many are pregnant well before their 15th birthday.
In such contexts, safe spaces offer a platform for young girls to receive support in a setting that is open and free for such conversations. The safe spaces enable them to start voicing their views while stimulating learning amongst peers on how to overcome issues that affect them. Having a safe space also gives them the opportunity to connect with others who may be facing similar situations.
Wibur Primary School in Gambella Region, Western Ethiopia. As of June 2019, there’re 1,812 students, out of which 895 are female.
Since 2018, Norwegian Church Aid Ethiopia together with its’ implementing partner, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus Development and Social Service Commission (EECMY- DASSC) has been running a safe space programme with the support of Kavli Foundation.
In addition to discussions that take place in the safe space, the programme aims to address challenges adolescent girls face. Due to economic reasons, some adolescent girls and their families cannot afford sanitary pads or school materials, forcing girls to miss school or even drop out. In 2018, NCA and EECMY provided 845 disposables and 900 reusable sanitary pads to the most disadvantaged adolescent girls including school materials. This helped relieve the shame and stigma girls face due to menstruation – ultimately enabling them to stay in-school. The project further supported girls to learn new skills such as knitting, aimed assisting them to generate income for themselves and their families in the long term.
In 2019, with the support of the Kavli Foundation, NCA Ethiopia and EECMY DASSC plan to support 12 safe spaces groups, where up to 800 adolescent girls will have access to such platforms.