Religious Leader, Sheik Hussein, Engages Men to End Child Marriage

In the rural southern part of the Afar region of Ethiopia, girls often get married before the age of 18. In the area, arranged marriages, forced unions, and marriage by abduction are common for girls. 

Poverty, lack of access to education, and harmful gender and cultural norms drive many of these marriages. COVID-19, droughts, and internal displacement caused by inter-communal conflicts have further exacerbated child marriages, pushing vulnerable families into desperate situations. These emergencies and conflicts have also hampered the delivery of essential services, disrupted livelihoods, and heightened risks—including maternal and infant mortality and dangers associated with gender-based violence (GBV), disproportionately affecting women, girls, and adolescents.

In Ethiopia, harmful traditional practices (HTPs) such as child marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) are still commonly practiced. According to EDHS 2016 data, 40% of girls in Ethiopia are married before age 18, and 14% are married before their 15th birthday. UNICEF has found that 65% of women aged 15-65 in Ethiopia have experienced FGM/C. Girls who marry early are more likely to experience early pregnancy, dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, and GBV, and they are less likely to have access to education, contraception, and economic opportunities.

Today, there are several community and religious leaders in the region working to change this reality. Sheik Hussein Ali, a 42-year-old religious leader in the community, is one of those men. He often performs Nikah—the religious ceremony for a couple to be married under Islamic law and after learning about the harm caused by traditional practices such as child marriage, he distanced himself from those practices. But he was still challenged by others in his community who wanted him to continue performing Nikah in all circumstances—including child marriage. He wants to see the people in his community adopt healthy attitudes and practices.

As part of EngenderHealth’s A’Ago program, we introduced our Men as Partners (MAP) approach, engaging men as clients, partners, and advocates. We identify existing male champions, such as Sheik Hussein Ali, and strengthen their ability to have peer discussions and Friday prayers around gender equality that challenge negative notions of masculinity. We engage those male champions in the initial community engagement discussion to foster ownership and accountability for social change. Together with local partners, we create focused and tailored messaging on interventions. These messages are spread through traditional local communication channels, radio, print materials, and health bazaars.

Sheik Hussien Ali readily accepted when EngenderHealth approached him to be part of the solution. He became a male champion in his community and felt heard and included. Through MAP activities and training, he received the information and skills needed to transform his community. Sheik Hussein has banned Nikah in harmful situations through social and behavioral change interventions, male engagement, contextualizing the fatwa, and enforcement of family law. If a bride is underage (younger than 18), was abducted, or doesn’t show interest in the marriage, he refuses to perform the Nikah.

Thanks to Sheik Hussien and other community leaders, fewer girls in his locality are being married young and against their will. Ending child marriage improves the lives of girls and women, contributes to a prosperous society, and leads to a world where gender equality can become a reality.

Read the other stories in this series here, here, and here.