Forced into marriage by her family, 14-year-old Bisharo stayed only five days with her abusive new husband before fleeing his home, fending for herself in drought-stricken southern Ethiopia.
Bisharo, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, sought help at a newly opened clinic for survivors of sexual violence at a hospital in Gode, a town in Ethiopia’s dust bowl Somali region.
It is among the worst-hit areas battered by a ferocious drought in the Horn of Africa that has left millions hungry and impoverished amid the driest conditions in 40 years.
The drought has inflicted another toll, doctors and social workers say — a spike in forced marriages and sexual violence.
Unicef says child marriages, which are illegal in Ethiopia, have more than doubled in the country’s four hardest-hit regions in the first six months of 2022 compared to the previous year.
For many desperate families, marrying off a daughter pays off twice: it reduces the number of mouths to feed, and the dowry given by the husband’s family helps cover costs.
Bisharo’s dowry was 3,000 Ethiopian birr ($56), said the teenager, who comes from a town outside Gode.
“My parents and my husband’s parents had agreed on the marriage deal. I did not know about it. He came to me before the marriage and asked me to marry him but I refused,” she said.
The union with the 20-year-old man, who hailed from the same clan as her father and already had a first wife, took place anyway.
‘He beat me’
“We lived together for five days, and he always beat me,” she said, clutching hands covered in henna tattoos.
“He was beating me because he wanted to have sex with me, and I was refusing.”
She still feels pain in her back, shoulders and head from the abuse she endured after her marriage in early January.
“I can’t even sleep during the night because of the pain,” she said.
Bisharo escaped, taking refuge at a neighbour’s house.
The husband was arrested by police, who requested that a divorce be granted, against the wishes of Bisharo’s father.
“My father told me if you get divorced, I am no longer your dad and you can’t call me your father,” she said.
Second to last in a family of five children, this young girl is alone.
Neither her three brothers, nor her sister, can help.
“Only my mother can understand my problems, but she cannot support me because she is afraid of my father,” Bisharo said.
“I didn’t get any support from them, so I came here,” she said of the specialised clinic in Gode that supports women and girls in similar need.
Survivors of violence
Since opening in November, this small building behind the town hospital has welcomed eight survivors of rape, and four women and girls escaping domestic violence.
The drought was a factor in many of these cases, said Fahad Hassan, a doctor at the clinic.
In the wider region, temporary camps for people forced to flee the drought put women and girls at risk, he said.
“Violence is common” in the camps, said Dr Fahad. He said a seven-year-old girl had been brought to the clinic after being raped in a camp in Abaqoro, a nearby district.
Sahra Haji Mohammed, a social worker, said attacks on women also occurred when they left the camp “to buy something, or she leaves her village to fetch water”.
Poverty was also a contributing factor to marital violence, she said.
“We have seen conflicts when the husband wants to sell household items to buy cigarettes or khat (a mildly narcotic leaf) because of lack of money.”
Free to choose
The women seen by the clinic so far are the tip of the iceberg, staff said.
Many survivors of gender-based violence in this region choose to stay quiet, they said, fearing being stigmatised by their traditional communities.
“We ourselves are from the community. We know cases who don’t come here but who are in their homes and trying to hide themselves. We know. We try to tell them that here is a centre intended to… help them,” said Dr Fahad.
He said apart from sexual assault, many in the community did not consider crimes against women to be serious offenses requiring intervention.
Bisharo, the only survivor at the clinic who agreed to speak with AFP, wants to encourage others to speak out.
“This is not only my problem… Even today, I heard a girl was forced to get married, and he tortured her, but her parents are not saying anything,” she said.
“Mothers can’t oppose the father’s decision because they are afraid… the main problem is the fathers.”
Bisharo is waiting for her divorce papers so she can leave and stay with a grandmother elsewhere, not wishing to return and face slander in her hometown.
There, she plans to start afresh where she is free to shape her own destiny: “I want to get married to someone close to my age.”