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The first time Senait went to school was when she was fifteen years old and it was entirely by accident.
Last year, she left her small town in southern Ethiopia when her parents announced one day that a well-off man had asked to marry her, and they had agreed. Rather than attend school, Senait, the eldest of ten children, had to earn money for her family, so she sold food on the side of the road. Faced with the choice of marrying a man her father’s age, who already had twelve children, or paying a broker to illegally transport her to the Middle East for work, she chose work. So she left her town in the back of a truck, hopeful for the promise of greater opportunity in Kuwait.
Things went wrong from the start. The broker told her he would take her to Addis Ababa and then onward to Kuwait by plane. Instead they drove south, and, when they reached Kenya, the broker coached her to convince the border officials she was visiting her brother in Nairobi. Once they reached Nairobi, the broker put her in a room with eight other girls and told her to wait as he got her a visa. For a month, the girls were given food and water and did not leave the room. When a few days passed without provisions, Senait left the house in search of water. She did not get far before the police picked her up. Senait called the broker from the station to ask for her passport. He hung up on her.
The police transferred her to Heshima Kenya’s Safe House, a transitional shelter for unaccompanied refugee girls in Nairobi. For the first time in her life, she went to school and studied math, practiced reading, and learned some basic English. After ten months, her paperwork was ready that would allow her to return to Ethiopia. She was relieved to go home, but would miss her classes.
Unfortunately, for many girls in Ethiopia and around the world, experiences like Senait’s are not uncommon. According to the United Nations, 62 million girls around the world are not in school and 150 million girls have experienced sexual violence. In the developing world, one in three girls is married before the age of eighteen. Among adolescent girls, medical complications from pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death. A quarter of a billion adolescent girls live in poverty.
As a result of structural cycles of poverty and violence, adolescent girls around the world like Senait migrate within their countries or to other countries to improve their economic opportunities. Migrants from Ethiopia are most likely to come from poor rural areas, be young and single, and in search of work. Some, like Senait, are younger than eighteen. While some go through legal channels, others pay illegal brokers to smuggle them out of the country, putting themselves at risk of sexual violence on the journey. Once they reach their employer’s home, many experience long hours, partial or delayed payment, and sexual or physical abuse.
A recent report argues that adolescent girls’ experiences of poverty, exploitation, and violence shape their decisions to migrate and the risks they face doing it. While the Ethiopian government has taken important steps, more is needed to make legal migration safer, combat trafficking and illegal migration, and support rehabilitation services.
Perhaps most importantly, girls like Senait need access to education and employment opportunities, the two major reasons they migrate in the first place—at the Safe House where Senait stayed in Nairobi with other girls from Ethiopia and the surrounding region, 70 percent had little to no schooling. African and international leaders have picked up the call to invest in adolescent girls like Senait, making the case that these investments benefit girls, their families, and their societies. Research from the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund finds that adolescent girls’ access to education is correlated with delayed marriage and childbearing, decreased HIV/AIDS rates, and greater gender equality. It improves the health of their children, and contributes to national income growth.
These findings have spurred new action. At a national level, for example, the Ethiopian government vowed to eliminate child marriage—along with female genital mutilation, another harmful traditional practice—by 2025. To reach this goal, they secured a 10 percent increase in the national budget and mobilized more champions to build public support. International actors are joining in to complement such efforts and drive more resources and attention to the issue. A few weeks ago, the World Bank Group announced $2.5 billion in education projects for adolescent girls around the world, recognizing that their empowerment is central to achieving international development objectives. The U.S. government recently launched the Let Girls Learn initiative, along with a broader strategy to empower adolescent girls around the world. Adolescent girls also have taken more prominent roles in their societies and on the global stage to help guide the new investments and hold leaders accountable.
When I met Senait, she had just arrived in Ethiopia from Nairobi, and expected to stay for a week at a transit center in Addis Ababa while her government, with the support of the International Organization for Migration, finalized the logistics for the return trip to her hometown. She planned to live with her aunt and save money to open a shop. If others ask her about her experiences, she’ll tell them not to try to reach the Middle East for work. And she will try to convince her parents to let her siblings wait until they’re older to get married.
Despite her strength and optimism, Senait was going back to the same situation where she had no access to school and limited options to earn a living, and where there was little respect for her rights. Until this changes, girls like Senait will continue to risk abuse and exploitation as they migrate in pursuit of opportunity.