Common River opened a primary school for orphaned children in 2008 in a rural community in southern Ethiopia. It started with 3 grades and enrolled 150 students in grades 1st through 3rd. In 2011, Donna and Tsegaye (co-founders) were following up on the 3 “drop-outs.” Two children had moved and one child got married. They were shocked that one of their 2nd graders, a 12 year old, had married a 13 year old boy and moved away to the next town. Knowing that the marriage laws in Ethiopia prohibit marriage to under-18 year olds, they took the grandmother, who is a Common River staff member and has custody of the child, to the file a case in court. In hopes of enforcing the law of the land and freeing the child, they sat in court for a whole day. In the end, the lawyer said that the grandmother would have to sign a paper to press charges against the boy. The grandmother told them that she did not want to do that. Donna and Tsegaye were again quite surprised.
They learned that this was her granddaughter’s second marriage and so she felt that it would not do any good. Women become enablers and acquiesce as they feel just as disempowered by their culture, just as the children who get robbed of their childhood. They asked the grandmother why she backed down. She said, “It is our culture. Yes, Sidama culture can be cruel to females, but it is our culture.”
Common River honors cultural heritage and programmatically, focuses on reviving Sidama culture. However, they realize that aspects of culture, which are harmful and unhealthy, are not necessary to support and promote. Cultural mores do evolve and change, adapting according to its relevancy, in order to sustain the continuation of the people and help them thrive. Who is to be the judge of those choices?
Common River supports female empowerment and education in order for a girl or a woman to make informed decisions in her life, which honor her and evolve her culture.
Written by Donna Sillan
Co-founder of Common River, 2011