Friday, March 24, 2006

Early marriage risks

Addressing the Consequences of Early Marriage: An Ethiopian Woman with Fistula Finds Hope

Zegewchu lives in East Gojjam in the valley of the Blue Nile, a three-hour walk from the nearest town. When she was six years old, her parents gave her in marriage to another man. The marriage lasted only two months and she remembers little about it.
Three years later, her parents married her again, to another stranger. At the time, she was nine years old, and she guesses he was about fourteen. “I didn’t love him,” she recalls. Zegewchu lived with him for three years, through the first stages of her growth as a woman. She did not once get her menses while she was with him, because she became pregnant before she got the chance.

Pregnant at twelve years old, Zegewchu became ill and her husband sent her home to her birth family to care for her, following local custom. When labor began, her adolescent body experienced major trauma and she could not deliver. After three days of obstructed labor, her family finally brought her to the hospital, and she had an emergency C-section. It was too late to save the infant, but Zegewchu survived.

Her survival was tenuous, however. While in labor, she developed an obstetric fistula, a debilitating and stigmatizing condition where her urine and feces drained uncontrollably through her vaginal opening. She was sent back to her natural home to recover after her hospital stay, and her husband divorced her, while she was ill, to marry another woman.

In discomforting pain and ashamed of her condition, Zegewchu spent three dark years in seclusion with her immediate family, while her relatives and friends ignored her. “No one would ask for me,” she says of this isolating time.

Finally, she was identified by a community-based reproductive health agent... as a fistula patient... [who] referred her to Ethiopian Aid for treatment at Bahir Dar Hospital, where there are doctors trained in fistula repair. Finally, in January 2006, Zegewchu and several other fistula sufferers, all young women, were provided transport and two-week hospital stays in Bahir Dar through Pathfinder’s project. “I am better, although I have slight pain in my uterus,” she says six weeks post-surgery. “Now, my relatives ask for me.”

Now healed, she is back at home with her father, and at sixteen years old is twice married, twice divorced, and has borne and lost one child. She is not yet in school, and fears that her father’s new wife is planning to marry her [off] again. “I will not marry again,” she says emphatically. “I want to learn.”

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