“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” – Arundhati Roy
It is popular in certain humanitarian circles to talk about the importance of “being a voice for the voiceless”. Many have pushed back against this rhetoric in recent years, noting that very few humans are truly voiceless. Instead, as Arundhati Roy suggests in the above quote, some voices are simply listened to more than others. And when it comes to discussions around sexual and reproductive health, the “preferably unheard” are too often young people.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of traveling to Ethiopia to meet some vibrant young women who participated in CARE’s TESFA program, which aims to improve sexual and reproductive health and economic outcomes for ever-married adolescent girls ages 10-19 through facilitated group discussions and learning.
Early marriage is common in rural areas of Ethiopia, and once a girl is married she is typically expected to end any pursuit of educational and/or economic advancement to focus on her husband and household, and ultimately to bear and raise children. The husband is the head of the household, providing security and financial support, and representing the couple/family in the community. By taking on these predetermined roles based on societal expectations, the girl’s voice may be overpowered by that of her husband – but she still has one.
I met twenty-year-old Mesobua Kassaw in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, a hilly and beautiful area in the northern part of the country made up mostly of farmland, and dotted with trees and small houses built of wood and mud with corrugated metal roofs. Mesobua’s parents arranged for her to be married to a priest at age 15, and shortly thereafter she gave birth to her daughter.
The difficulties started right away.
“My husband didn’t have any work,” she told me. “He would go drinking with the other priests and would come home and say mean things to me.”
Mesobua decided on her own to join TESFA and began attending regular meetings with a small group of girls around her age who had also been married. They formed their own Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) and learned about the benefits of saving money and understanding loans, interest, and money management. They also talked about family planning, prenatal care, and other topics related to sexual and reproductive health – including early marriage. Her girls’ group enjoyed the opportunity to socialize, learn, and participate in these important conversations happening in her community. Mesobua’s group has continued to meet even after the official end of the TESFA project, and she now leads some of the discussions.
Now divorced, Mesobua is about the farthest thing from “voiceless” I can imagine. She farms her own land, sells oil at local markets, and raises her daughter on her own. She clearly and confidently expresses her thoughts, ideas, and opinions, even to me, a foreigner she had only just met.
On educating others: “I tell my parents what I have learned about savings, fuel-saving stoves, latrines and the like and help them to act on it.”
On early marriage: “I think the effort to stop early marriage should continue… I don’t want other young or older girls to go through that. I want them to marry on their own time after achieving a good status in life.”
On her own personal growth: “I have changed and realized that I shouldn’t ask my family for money, that I should value myself, love others, and socialize. I should be patient and take the high road. I have learned to love… Thanks to CARE I’m more confident now. In the past I didn’t even want to be seen by other people, let alone talk to them. Nowadays I am not scared of anyone. I speak up. I say what is on my mind.”
Mesobua doesn’t need anyone to be her voice. It seems to me that the best thing we can do to help her (and other young people around the world) is to be quiet and listen. Or better yet, pass her a microphone.