Harmful Traditional Practices and Child Protection: Contested Understandings and Practices of Female Child Marriage and Circumcision in Ethiopia
Local perspectives on female child marriage and circumcision in Ethiopia are explored in this Young Lives Working Paper 93. Both practices are widespread still, despite international and national efforts to eradicate them, and reflect deep-rooted patriarchal and gerontocratic values regulating transactions between kin groups at marriage and women’s reproduction.
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Both have been designated as Harmful Traditional Practices (HTPs) by the Ethiopian government and are proscribed by law, with designated punishments. This is in line with Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls for the prohibition of traditional practices that are prejudicial to the health and well-being of children. Apart from the fact that both practices are labelled ‘harmful’ and relate only to girls, the main reason for considering female child marriage and female circumcision together is that the latter tends to be seen as a necessary precursor to former.
The paper explores the values that drive these practices and examines whether and in what ways they have been affected by efforts to eradicate them. It points to the complexity of beliefs and practices, highlighting differences associated with ethnicity, religion, generation and gender. It finds that the efforts of government and elite leaders to eradicate them are contributing to the diminution or transformation of female circumcision and female child marriage, although with marked regional variations and considerable contestation and resistance in some places. In mapping these processes of change, the paper identifies trends in premarital sex, clandestine surgeries, and other subterfuges that may demonstrate unexpected consequences and adverse reactions to laws which were intended to protect children. In doing so, it emphasises the challenges confronted by child-protection measures designed to bring about change to long-established customs.
The analysis draws on interviews with 25 children and young people from five communities, as well as their peers, caregivers and community representatives, conducted in 2007, 2008 and 2011. The paper uses both statistical and ethnographic evidence to assess the prevalence of the two customs and the cultural and material logic underpinning them. It gives an overview of the external forces militating for change and presents evidence on trends of change. This is followed by analysis of the personal experiences of Young Lives children and the discourses against the practices, as well as a consideration of the resistance to change. Finally, the discussion reflects on wider issues of modernity and rising aspirations for girls.