I was sitting in the Cluster Supervisor’s office (which is also supposed to be my office, but for some time already my desktop had been occupied by two giant machines, coated with grease that was in turn crusted with dust, hand-cranked precursors to photocopy machines called “duplicators”) … I was working on my laptop, when I became vaguely aware of a conversation. He (the supervisor) was speaking in Amharic with the woman on the other side of the room (another familiar face whose name I didn’t know, like so many on campus, because I hadn’t been introduced). She was sitting behind me; my back was turned to her desk. My friend, the supervisor, asked, “What do you think, is this girl old enough to marry?” I turned to see his office-mate counseling a shy girl, remarkably beautiful, in traditional clothing. She looked about 17 to me. But that didn’t matter; I’d determined what my answer would be before I ever turned around. Even if she was 25, I would have said “No, she’s too young.”
He explained to me that her family was based in Gonder, and they had called to the school to send for her; they were asking for her to quit school and go up there. He was worried about the reason for the request. He was afraid that she was going to be forced to marry. “She is thirteen years old.”
He was worried about some of the implications of marrying someone beyond her years “physically and psycho-socially.” He mentioned the common problem of fistula for females who were not physically mature enough for child-bearing. I mentioned other concerns: loss of educational and professional opportunity, loss of self-determination and so on.
I asked him if he knew the legal minimum age for marriage in Ethiopia. He didn’t know for sure, but guessed correctly, at least according to what I had heard: 18. I asked about the average age of marriage for females in the Amhara region; I’d heard it was around 15. That was the average. So many were getting married much younger. When I asked why the average was way below the legal age, he couldn’t come up with an answer. If I had to answer that, I’d use one word: tradition. I’ll get back to that seemingly simple concept in a bit.
Stats on Early Marriage, et cetera
When I looked at some relatively recent studies and reports, those stats were confirmed. About half of those females were married to men 10 years or more their senior. Many marriages are arranged by parents without the consent of the couple to be wed (especially the girl or woman). The table below comes from a published study called REPORT ON CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES OF EARLY MARRIAGE IN AMHARA REGION put out by Pathfinder International/Ethiopia in July 2006. Not only is the average age of marriage striking, but so are the extremes: very few beyond my “too young” judgement of 25, and on the other end of the spectrum, marriage at the age of 2 (in further reading I learned that, traditionally, some children are even promised for marriage at birth). Some girls are required to live with, and work for, the parents of the husband until they become old enough to consummate the marriage, so to speak. The situation (statistically speaking) gets better for girls/women with more education and for those who live in urban areas. Yet another study I read showed that incidences of sexual violence victimization went up along with higher levels of schooling and employment (not to mention frequency of attending religious events).
Anyone who’s spent much time here knows that girls are disadvantaged; they do a lot of housework and other chores, which leaves them less time for school and study than boys. Societal norms also discourage interest and participation in academics; that’s the realm of boys and men. This seems to be changing, especially in urban areas. But the change is slow. I’ve heard, anecdotally, that girls from this region are known to be good servants, and so may be shipped off to Addis, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, etc. I saw a girl in a class at my primary class who appeared almost as a full-grown woman, sitting side by side with children in a first-grade class. When I asked about her I was told she was a servant brought in from the countryside; this was her first opportunity to go to school.
The good thing is that the educated people I’ve met here are well aware of this problem and are trying to address it and improve the situation for girls. The concern shown by the supervisor in my school is just one instance of that. There are also more positive female role models around these days (managers, designers, even one pilot). In my town there is one school run completely by women (teachers and administrators).
Now let me get back to that point about tradition. It’s ironic to me that even as I write this, and as most readers in the US would look upon the statistics and observations above with disdain, shock, or disgust, there exists a group of people back home fighting outlandishly for a seemingly unsupportable defense of “traditional marriage.”
The traditions of marriage are the roots, literally what is “handed down.”. These include not just marriage of girls too young to give informed consent, but woman as servant, woman as property, woman as baby-making machine, et cetera. This is not something to fight for or go back to. The idea of a consensual decision based on consensual interests, or – even more of a stretch – love and affection, is not the tradition of marriage, it’s a relatively recent reform. Ethiopia’s trying to move forward. So why do some in the US want to move back? Why not go forward and extend the evolution of marriage from a kind of indentured servitude to something based on individualized, mutual choice? Why create a victimless crime? Laws should be put in place to protect the vulnerable (like teenage girls), not to punish consenting adults for being who they are. Right?
When I first moved to my town, I couldn’t figure out why so many women walked around with a kind of stone-faced scowl, eyes cast half-downward, betraying no emotion but a vague suspicion, perhaps with a hint of disgust. After living here for awhile I understood. Like in many societies, women here are prone to being harassed and abused. Frequently harassed and shouted at myself, not for being a woman, but for being a white stranger, soon enough I had developed that same posture, that same scowl. It was a natural defense mechanism.
Beneath All Calculation
In his book, Poor People, William T. Vollmann cites Karl Marx’s Das Kapital: “the eighteen-hour working days, lacemakers dying of overwork, the use of women to haul barges because the labor required to produce horses and machines is an accurately known quantity, while that required to maintain the women of the surplus population is beneath all calculation.”
That notion leapt off the page at me when I first read it, because at that time I was still in shock at the heavy labor done by women here, and when walking in the country didn’t see much difference between how donkeys and women were used to carry loads, save that donkeys were more frequently without them. Women carry huge baskets, often filled to the brim with heavy products, bent over at the waist and lurching forward in bare feet. In the cities they often work as ditch diggers and rock haulers. If there is a ditch to be dug or unclogged, it’s typical to see a woman at the front of the line, down in that ditch, pickaxe in hand. At construction sites, I often see men lifting shovels full of crushed rock (first chipped by hand by men and women alike) into baskets on the backs of women, who then haul it up to where it’s needed. In short, women do a lot of heavy labor here.
An acquaintance (a born and bred Ethiopian man) once said to me: If women stopped working for even one day, African society would collapse. The men … all they do is play games and chew on sticks. This is an exaggeration, of course (many men toil at heavy labor, just like women, often times barefoot). But it’s an exaggeration built upon a kernel of truth.
Gender Apartheid and More
I’d intended to write more, about the so-called “gender apartheid” that I expected I might find had my wife and I been placed in our original assignment (in Jordan). I might have wondered about the pros and cons of this arrangement in rigid, traditional societies. I’d have noted there is more than a whiff of that separation here, but not to such an extreme. Personally, I’d have noted, I’m really happy that I can have conversations and professional working relationships with both women and men. There are many more things I wanted to say about the positive influence of women here, too. I think the development of this country, like many others, isn’t going to progress very far or very fast without the empowerment of its women and girls. I’d have talked about wanting to see the day when a man is sitting on that little stool during the whole coffee ceremony, grinding and roasting and brewing and serving. I might have written more about all of that, and tried to do so in a coherent fashion, but I’m tired and out of time for tonight.