Alemtsahye Gebrekidan was 10 when her childhood came to an abrupt end. ‘I was playing outside and my mum called me inside to the house,’ she remembers of the day her world changed forever. ‘She said “you’re going to marry”. I was surprised and I cried but I didn’t say anything to them [her parents].’ Her wedding, to a boy of 16, took place just two months later.
Shocking though it might seem, her experience is by no means unique. According to World Health Organisation figures, 14.2 million girls under the age of 15 are forced into marriage each year. Most come from India, the Middle East, and like Alemtsahye herself, from sub-Saharan Africa – Niger, Chad, the Central African Republic and Ethiopia among them.
The consequences are appalling. Along with an education and childhood cut short, girls suffer a traumatic initiation into sexual relationships, are put at risk of domestic violence and STI’s, and have the chance of a career or better life taken away. Worse, many also die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related complications – the leading cause of death for girls aged between 15 and 19 years old in developing countries, according to UN figures.’