International Development CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Alemtsahye Gebrekidan, Chair The Former Child Wives’ Foundation UK



I am Ethiopian-born former child wife, who was married at ten, became a mother at 13, a single mother and widow at 13 and half when my husband was killed in the civil war. My traumatic experiences led me to form a charity, The Former Child Wives’ Foundation.

The Foundation works to raise public awareness of the stigma as well as the profound social, economic and health problems associated with child marriage. We also encourage other former child wives who are living in isolation to come out and seek help; and we provide advice regarding the available support services.

The Ethiopian Former Child Wives’ Foundation UK appreciates the tremendous work, which this Committee and UK government have done to tackle Forced Marriage, Female Genital Mutilation and Early Marriage in the UK and in the developing countries.

However, we regret that very little is known or said about the unfortunate women who had been married when they were children. Yet the effects of child marriage on individuals and society are just as, or even more damaging and long-lasting than Forced Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation.

According the tradition in my native Ethiopia, it was believed that a girl was too old to be married after the age of 14 or 15. But the main reason was poverty. Child marriage was supposed to relieve pressure on the poor family and guarantee the future economic wellbeing of the child wife, especially if she was married into wealthy family with plenty of land, cows, goats, sheep and donkeys.

In other words, a girl’s value was measured in terms of the age at which she got married and the family in which she was married, but not her values as an individual or education achievements.

Although the Ethiopian government banned the marriage of girls under the age of 18 in 2001, that law came too late for me and millions of other children who had been before that date.

Some of these “valuable” former child wives fled to the UK during the civil war between 1974 and 1991 and after. Others stayed behind.

The Impacts of Child Marriage

Whether a former child stayed in Ethiopia or moved to the UK, the impacts of child marriage remains with her. She was robbed of her childhood, prevented from getting basic education and she is likely to have suffered fistula. She is also expected to have as many children as nature allows.

But it is the lack of basic educations, which causes the greatest long-term damage to the former child wife, her children they society in which they live. Unable to read or write, she is socially blind, economically crippled and forced to depend on her husband to direct her life, however violent and abusive he is.

I was in Ethiopia last March, when I met several former child wives who were living with their children in the streets. Some of them told me that they had fled from abusive husbands. Others said they had been widowed. Still others said they had been abandoned by their husbands who had gone to look for work in Libya and other Arab countries never to return.

But all of these former child wives told me that they had been forced to become prostitutes in order to earn some money to feed their children.

They also told me that they were facing violence and risking HIV on a daily basis. They were fearful for their children who were likely get involved in crimes, become prostitutes or get married early and create the next generation of former child wives.

The Former Child Wives in London

The number of the former child wives in London and around the UK is unknown. Because of stigma, many of them are living in isolation and suffering in silence. Their English is too poor to express their concerns or basic support needs. They are facing difficulties with parenting. And they are trapped in a vicious cycle of unemployment, benefit dependency, poverty and ill-health.

It is these former child wives and their children, now British citizens of permanent residents, who will be most affected by benefit changes due in early April.

The Future

The Former child Wives’ Foundation has a plan to encourage other former child wives to come out, speak about their experiences and take advantage of government support services in order to improve their lives.

We also have a plan to start a pilot project in form of a hostel to house the former child wives living in the streets in Addis Ababa, Makele and other big towns. We want to support them to go back to school, start trading in the market or learn basic skills, which would lead to self-employment and independence.

Resilient Women

Having been forced to grow up fast when they were married as children, the former child wives are some of the most resilient people you can find. They were already wives, juggling with child care, looking for food and cooking for their husbands when their British counterparts were playing with dolls or computer games. They have the determination to make the best of what is left of their lives.

For example, I came to the UK when I could not speak or understand a word in English. I leant my first ABC form the UK. I went to college and got a diploma in Business studies. There are several other former child wives who are doing various things to improve their lives.


As our personal experiences have shown, child marriage affects not only the individual and her children, but also the community in which they live. Without a timely and effective intervention, the effects of child marriage (poor education, unemployment, poverty and ill-health) are likely to be multiplied and carried forward to the next generations.

Call for Action

The Former Child Wives’ Foundation calls on the International Development Committee to consider the victims of child marriage with the same urgency which they have given to the Forced Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation. They need the practical support to stand up on their two feet. We are willing and ready to play our part in collaboration with other government and voluntary agencies. Our achievements testify to what we can do.

Our Achievements so Far

Although we lack even the most basic resources, rely on volunteers and operate from my small flat in Ealing, we have managed to lobby several MPs who signed Parliamentary Motion No 1105 on child marriage in Ethiopia; delivered a petition to No 10 Downing Street; been to the Foreign Office for a meeting with officials in the Forced Marriage department; become a member of the “Girls not Brides Campaign” headed by the international elders including Archbishop Tutu; and we have secured the moral support of the Ethiopian women gold medalists in the 2012 Olympics, namely Tiki Gelana (Marathon), Turinesh Debaba (10,000m) and Mesret Defar (5,000m).

All we need are your political support and resources.

14 March 2013

Prepared 12th June 2013