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Families marry off girls before they are ready for childbirth.
Hanna Ingber Win, the Huffington Post's World Editor, was recently invited by the U.N. Population Fund to visit its maternal health programs in Ethiopia, which has one of the world's worst health care systems. In the U.S., a woman has a 1 in 3,418 chance of dying from complications due to pregnancy, childbirth or unsafe abortion. In Ethiopia, a woman has a 1 in 7 chance of dying. Here is a piece about what she learned on her trip.
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The first time Tadu Gelana's mother suggested she get married, Tadu thought she was kidding. Only 14 years old, Tadu had not yet finished school or had her first menstruation cycle. Tadu laughed at the suggestion. The second time her mother mentioned it, Tadu told her she wasn't interested.
Her mother did not relent.
Tadu's brother, who was about twice her age and had taken care of her for many years, had recently passed away. Tadu felt she should be grieving for the loss of her big brother, not preparing for a joyous wedding ceremony.
"My beloved brother died at that time, and I had that sorrow in me," she says, wiping away tears. "I was very much against [getting married]. I wanted to continue my education with my friends."
Tadu, wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt and black T-shirt, looks like a typical teenager. Her braided hair is pulled back into a bun and small shiny earrings add a sparkle to her face. She tells me her story as we sit in Biruh Tesfa ("Bright Future"), an informal school for runaway girls in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. The school receives funding from the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), which has sponsored my trip, is operated by the Ethiopian government and gets technical support from an international non-governmental organization called Population Council.
Tadu never formally met the man whom she was assigned to marry but she saw him in her small town in central Ethiopia. He was tall with brown skin. She does not know how old he was — only that he was "an adult."
"When I was alone, I was afraid of him," she says. "When I was with other girls, they protected me. We all laughed at him."
Tadu solicited her uncle to try to convince her mother to let her stay in school and not get married. Her mother agreed. But after Tadu's uncle left, her mother again demanded that Tadu get married.
"My mother told me, 'Either you have to marry, or you leave this house,'" she says, as she stares down at the school's metal desk.
Tadu decided to leave her mother, friends and school and move from Ambo to Addis with her aunt and uncle. Her aunt found her a job as a domestic worker with her neighbor. Tadu, now 16, lives with her employer and spends her days cleaning the house, washing clothes and dishes and cooking for the family.
I ask Tadu about her friends in Addis and what they do for fun. I try to get her to smile and laugh like other girls her age, but she does not. She maintains a solemn look, staring down at her hands or the desk, quietly answering my questions.
For a few hours every day, the family allows Tadu to go to Biruh Tesfa, where we meet one morning in late August. Two centers in Addis serve about 600 girls between the ages of 10 and 19, says Habtamu Demele, the project coordinator of the center.