MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
It is a fact of life in developing countries all over the world, in every religious tradition and in every region - from Mali and Nigeria in Africa to India and Nicaragua - about one-third of women marry as children.
In this part of the program, we're going to travel with NPR's Brenda Wilson to Ethiopia, where the government is trying to change that. Keeping with international conventions on children and women, Ethiopia has said that women must be 18 to marry. But that law has turned up mixed results. Here's Brenda's report from a rural village in Ethiopia, a country that still has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world.
BRENDA WILSON: The village of Yinsa is a little over a half hour's drive from the 21st century and the nearest town. Tens of thousands of people live on the family compounds and farms scattered throughout the forests of eucalyptus and fields of corn and tef, a grain that goes into the making of the spongy bread, njera.
The guide then takes us on a trek into dense undergrowth. Family compounds spring up, huts constructed of sturdy tree limbs and pieces of wood with dark, red earth and straw packed between them.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
Mr. GEBRE EJIGU: Please enter my house. Visit, please.
WILSON: Gebre Ejigu and his brother are churning the earth into a thick glop for an addition they're planning to the family homestead, a space for their aging mother.
Your name is?
Ms. ASCHTENEK ALEM: Alem.
Mr. EJIGU: Aschtenek Alem.
Ms. ALEM: (Foreign language spoken)
(Soundbite of laughter)
WILSON: Inside, there's one large room with a dirt floor. The old woman rises from a goatskin-covered earthen shelf, and choking smoke drifts up from a smoldering fire in the center. The only light comes in from the doorway.
Hardly any adults here know their age. Aschtenek Alem, a small, sinewy woman whose graying hair has been cropped short, could be in her mid-60s. She doesn't know and can't remember when she married.
Ms. ALEM: (Through Translator) Please leave me alone. I swear by the name of St. Mary, I don't even know how old my kids are, let alone when I got married.
WILSON: From childhood on, young girls in rural societies like this one move from subservience to subservience. During the rainy season, as a young girl, Aschtenek trailed behind her husband in the field helping with the planting, even as she did her household chores - making cloth, fetching water, and cutting wood and kept house. She had three children, two sons and a girl. Her husband was at least 10 years older than she was.
Ms. ALEM: (Through Translator): We didn't know each other before we got married, but we got along. There was no fighting.
WILSON: It was a different time 40 years ago, in the waning years of Emperor Haile Selassie's reign.
Ms. ALEM: (Through Translator) Praise be to God. I have a good living because we have two plots of land. My children use that land. I'm living with them. It's not much, but I feel blessed.
WILSON: Aschtenek's husband died two years ago. As she talks, a teenage girl has got the fire going and is preparing coffee, roasting the beans by rolling them on a flat pan over the fire. Her name is Silenat. She is the wife of Aschtenek's 25-year-old son. Two years ago, at the age of 14, she was married and brought here to live.
What do you remember?
SILENAT: (Through Translator) Playing. I have two brothers. I remember playing with my brothers.
WILSON: What did your mother and father say to you when they gave you to your husband?
SILENAT: (Through Translator) It was the day before I came here. They told me there will be a wedding day. You will go with a husband to another village.
WILSON: She's a sly beauty who can't quite keep in check her adolescent giggles when she looks at an image of herself captured by a digital camera.
SILENAT: (Through Translator) I am very beautiful.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SILENAT: I've seen myself in a mirror but I've never seen myself in a picture.
WILSON: In 1995, Ethiopia government set 18 as the age limit for marriage. No one here says they oppose that, but child marriages keep right on happening.
Aschtenek's son was 23, for example, when he married the 14-year-old Silenat. Aschtenek herself believes the marriages work better when the man is older, since he has to deal with a wife who is, in many ways, still a child.
Ms. ALEM: (Through Translator) He has to be able to help himself, or at least be happy. I'm serious. There are a lot of things he should take care of. It is a good thing to wait until they get older. I think the change is for good.
WILSON: It is almost always the girls who marry at an early age. On average in Ethiopia, there is an eight-year age difference between partners.
Marriages are alliances that provide social and economic advantages for the families - more land, more cows, more standing in the community. A girl who isn't married early is viewed as spoiled or ruined. And if she loses her virginity before marriage, it is virtually impossible to find a man who will marry her.
Early marriage means it's also less likely that she will have sex before marriage with a boy or man who does not meet the family's approval. And it lessens the chance that a girl who is desirable or from a good family will be abducted and raped as a way of laying claim to her.
(Soundbite of dripping water)
WILSON: So a child marriage is still seen by men like Bazie Minale as a way of protecting their daughters. Minale is Aschtenek's neighbor and lives a short walk away down a muddy path from Aschtenek's family. He also seems convinced that the family's reputation rests on whether his daughters are married by the age of 12.
Mr. BAZIE MINALE (Resident): (Through Translator) All her friends are married and gone. If she stays with us, people might think that there is something wrong with us. We want her married and have kids.
WILSON: But Minale says the young girl would remain at home until she is able to manage her own household.
Mr. MINALE: (Through Translator) When she gets married at the age of 12, she stays at home with us. She can stay for two years until she is ready and mature. Then she can go home with her husband and start her own life.
WILSON: There's a new school in the village that has given his 8-year-old daughter Enatnesh, a third-grader, a glimpse of another life. She stands by the doorway and takes in her father's words with a look of profound sadness.
What do you want for your life? You're 8 years old.
ENATNESH: (Through Translator) I want to be a doctor. I want to be a teacher. Or like you.
WILSON: Do you think you can do that if you get married at 12 or 15?
ENATNESH: (Through Translator) I can't be.
WILSON: When do you want to get married?
ENATNESH: I don't want to marry a husband.
WILSON: Can you decide this?
ENATNESH: (Through Translator) Of course, I can't decide to marry or not. The decision is up to my family, my father and mother.
WILSON: Her future already holds more promise than her mother's. But early marriage would undercut her possibilities in life, introducing her early on to heavy workloads in the fields, at home, and to bearing children at an age when health complications are much more likely.
As we prepare to leave Yinsa, Aschtenek's daughter, Lidsie Ejigu, walks up. She is a striking 31-year-old woman with an aura of fearlessness about her. She is the leader of a local women's group that is working with Ethiopia's National Association on Traditional Practices. They want to improve the status of women.
Ms. LIDSIE EJIGU (Aschtenek's Daughter): (Through Translator) Those who come out and join us, they know more about their health, how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS, how to use birth control. They know to protect their own property, however small it is.
It's those that haven't been able to join us, that are reluctant to join us. They don't know about these things yet. It's those that we need to reach out to.
WILSON: In the old days, she says, a man could abandon his wife and hold on to the property, even if part of it was her dowry.
Ms. EJIGU: (Through Translator) Take, for example, this land over here. It belongs to the couple who live here. Say they had a disagreement. The man has every right to kick the woman out. He could do that. He could tell her to leave.
The woman can go and ask for some legal advice to see if she could get half the property, half the land, half the cattle. But she would get nowhere. Men dominate. In the end, it would probably be better for her to stay in the marriage.
WILSON: Lidsie was married once herself, given away at age 16. But it didn't work.
Ms. EJIGU: (Through Translator) He took another wife. What was I to do? I guess we didn't get along anymore. And then he didn't work very hard. He wasn't bringing enough, enough harvest - not enough for us to live on.
WILSON: So she decided to strike out on her own.
Ms. EJIGU: (Through Translator) I used to collect firewood, make - you know, sell that in the market, and that's how I was able to raise the children. Now, together with my brothers, we are farming the land that our father left us.
WILSON: It is the voice of a mature woman awakening.
Ms. EJIGU: (Foreign language spoken) I never had a chance to go to school when I was young. I never had a chance to study. Maybe if I did maybe I would have become who I wanted to be.
WILSON: And as defeated as she may sound, she's already steps that millions of women around the world have yet to take.
Brenda Wilson, NPR News.
NORRIS: And you can see photos of the young women Brenda met in Ethiopia. You'll find that at our Web site, npr.org.