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When Zafu’s mother received an offer for her daughter’s hand in marriage, it drastically altered the 14-year-old’s life course.
The news devastated 14-year-old Zafu Arefe — her mother had accepted a marriage offer on her behalf. Zafu knew she had no choice but to abandon the future she had envisioned for herself.
“I had never imagined getting married at an early age,” the now 19-year-old says. “My dream was to be a medical doctor and be somebody useful to my country and myself…early marriage claimed my dream, leaving me in unbearable, painful tragedy.”
In her northern Ethiopian town of Adianso, tradition calls for parents to accept the first request for their daughter’s hand in marriage. If refused, it’s believed that the girl will never marry.
Finances challenged the family as much as cultural traditions. Zafu’s father died when she was very young, leaving her mother to provide for the family as a day laborer.
The teenager tried vehemently to avoid the marriage.
“I begged my mother to change her mind, in tears for days, yet she didn’t feel pity,” Zafu says. “She was telling me that the marriage would bring her honor in the midst of the community.”
Zafu sought refuge at her uncle’s house, but a week later, her mother found her and convinced the uncle that the marriage was a good idea.
Dejected, Zafu married the man. Community tradition also calls for both families to give a dowry to the new couple. But Zafu’s mother wasn’t able to contribute due to her financial struggles, which upset Zafu’s husband and his family.
A year later, the couple welcomed a baby girl into their family, but disputes over the lack of dowry from Zafu’s mother continued to plague their marriage. After four years, his parents convinced him to divorce Zafu. He took their daughter with him.
“I didn’t know what to do after the divorce,” she says. “Everything turned upside down. The pain was unbearable. It maddened me, leaving me hopeless.”
Trying to forget, she left home and moved to the nearby city of Mekele to work as a maid. In the back of her mind, the embers of her dream still burned. She asked her employer about sending her to night school, but didn’t receive any support. Disappointed, she left her job and returned home, hopeful that her mom might support her revived dream. She, too, disapproved.
Feeling defeated, Zafu once again married.
“I didn’t marry because I wanted to marry,” she says. “I did it out of desperation and hopelessness. I mean, I don’t have anywhere to go.”
The couple had a baby boy late last year. Her husband works as a day laborer to support the family, and she helps by making embroidery, cultural plates, and washing others’ clothes. Zafu has abandoned her dream of becoming a doctor but remains concerned for other vulnerable girls.
“My hope has gone,” she says. “There are so many girls with big dreams of becoming someone in the future. Despite their dream, I can tell you that many girls are still under threat of early marriage.”
Zafu says she puts herself in their shoes and pleads to whoever is listening: “Let my life be a lesson to others, and let us try our best to stop early marriage in any way that we can.”