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“I am a free girl now, and studying hard to become a doctor”

In southern Ethiopia, the custom of abducting girls and forcing them into marriage remains a deeply rooted tradition in many communities. Hirut, 15, was just 12 when a group of men tried to kidnap her while she was on her way home from school.

Hirut, 15, escaped her forced marriage and is now free to learn
Hirut, 15, escaped her forced marriage and is now free to learn

Hirut, 15, was just 12 when a group of men tried to kidnap her while she was on her way home from school. As she was pulled along the road by the men she cried out for help. “Initially, I didn’t know what they were up to and I was shocked. It took me a moment to get myself together and shout for help,” she explains.

In southern Ethiopia, the custom of abducting girls and forcing them into marriage remains a deeply rooted tradition in many communities. Although the government criminalised bride kidnapping and raised the marriageable age to 18 in 2004, this law has not been well implemented. 

Thankfully for Hirut, her pleas for help were heard by some local people who challenged and chased the men away. Hirut considers herself lucky that she was rescued. Had it not been for the awareness-raising work that Plan International through our local partner ANPPCAN Ethiopia, has been running for the past 8 years, she thinks it is unlikely anyone would have stepped in to help her. “Previously, it was normal for a girl to be abducted and be forced into marriage,” says Hirut.

The local people who rescued her, acted as witnesses when she reported the case to the police. However, although the men were caught, village elders mediated on their behalf and they were released a short time later after paying compensation of 3,000 birr (around €90).

Not put off by his brush with the law, the man who wanted to marry Hirut sent elders to her family to formally request her for marriage. “I saw a group of elders coming out of our house and my instinct told me that something was wrong,” she explains. “I left and went back to school to ask them for help.” Hirut later found out that the elders came with 11,000 birr and some presents for her family who had agreed to her marriage.

Hirut, 15, was helped to by her teachers to escape from a forced marriage
Hirut, 15, was helped to by her teachers to escape from a forced marriage

With the help of her teachers, Hirut reported her family to the police. “We went to my house with the police to speak to my family. They promised that they will never think of doing such a thing again and agreed to let me stay in school,” says Hirut. “I am a free girl now, and studying hard to become a doctor.” 

Since her escape from marriage, Hirut now tries to help protect her friends from a similar fate. When her best friend was facing marriage to a man she had never met, Hirut managed to convince her friend’s family to drop their plans for the time being. 

Unfortunately, while Hirut was away from her village, her friend was forced into marriage. “I sometimes see her. Now she has 2 children and because of the misery of being a child wife and mother, her face has changed a lot,” says Hirut sadly.

Although Hirut has been criticised by some village members for challenging the traditions of her family and community, she says that it doesn’t affect her. “I don’t care at all. All I care is about my education and dreams. I am so thankful that I took part in Plan International’s child protection project which helped me become stronger.” 

Hirut has taken part in various training sessions run by the organisation which is committed to raising awareness in communities about the negative consequences of harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage.

“Changing harmful traditional practices is critical,” says Alemitu Abebe, from the Regional Council. “So much work has been done and we have witnessed many changes. But there is still much to be done to reduce, let alone eradicate them.” 

For nearly 8 years, Plan International has worked alongside communities in southern Ethiopia to challenge traditional attitudes and cultural beliefs. We have recently launched a new project to fight harmful practices that affect the health and development of children, with a particular focus on girls. 

The project will directly reach a total of 12,000 children from 25 communities in Shebedino district and will indirectly affect the lives of 125,000 children in the region.