In a small, thatched hut in a refugee camp on the Ethiopian border with Somalia, a group of women is having an animated discussion about the appropriate age for marriage.
Miryama*, a 16-year-old holding a small baby of her own, says she won't choose the same path for her daughter that she took herself. Like many girls in this community, Miryama was forced to abandon school when she was just 14 to marry an older man.
The Aw Barre refugee camp, a dry outpost in a rural region of Ethiopia, shelters 11,000 Somalis who fled civil war in southern Somalia since 2006. Somalia, with its capital Mogadishu, has suffered through war and anarchy for the last 18 years. A recent insurgency by religious radicals displaced almost 2 million people in the last several years. One million of those are displaced inside their own country, while hundreds of thousands are refugees in northeast Kenya. Tens of thousands have found refuge in Ethiopia.
The IRC has been working in the Aw Barre camp since 2007, ensuring that women and girls have access to lifesaving services like medical care, and at the same time organizing activities to challenge attitudes and beliefs that perpetuate violence.
In this hut, IRC social workers have organized a weekly "tea talk," a forum in which refugees discuss issues ranging from gender roles, early marriage, to domestic and sexual violence. Men and women meet separately so they feel free to express themselves.
Some of Miryama's peers question her conviction. Two girls around her age argue that trying to finish secondary school would be a mistake. By the time they could finish - when they're anywhere from 18 to 20 - they would be too old to find suitable husbands, they say.
An older woman adds her voice to the conversation. "Girls should go to school and be educated," she says. "Then they can get married." In the background is the sound of popcorn popping, and the smell of strong, black tea - steeped in milk and served with an enormous helping of sugar.
In another hut nearby, a group of men from the camp discuss the same topic with an IRC staffer who, like them, is Somali. The older men in this "tea talk" worry how their daughters will find husbands if they are too old. A few younger men break the trend, saying that they prefer to wait for a wife who has received an education.
Sunita Palekar, IRC's gender-based violence response coordinator in Ethiopia, welcomes community debate around an issue like early marriage. "Our goal is to begin raising awareness about the consequences of violence against women and girls, not only for survivors but for families and communities," she says. "When communities have safe spaces to talk and to challenge harmful beliefs, they also start to find solutions to daily problems together."
Back with the women, the conversation has turned to camp services available for survivors of sexual, physical, and other types of violence. Many women, although now aware of places to safely receive medical and psychosocial support, express fear of being rejected by family and neighbors should they be seen seeking services to treat assault. They point to the sense of shame or guilt that often surrounds violence against women and girls, and they're skeptical that reporting a crime will lead to any real action.
An IRC social worker known to colleages as Asha reviews with women the steps that IRC and partner organizations take to maintain confidentiality, to protect the safety and security of survivors, and to ensure that anyone seeking services is treated with respect. She knows that not all of these women and girls feel comfortable coming forward when they need help, but the number of women that do come forward has been increasing. And today, for as long as this "tea talk" continues, they're able to ask questions, access information and talk about what kind of community Miryama might help build for her little girl.
*not her real name