By Adamnesh Atnafu Bogale
Migration is an alternate strategy for diversifying income for poor families in the Kombolcha area of South Wollo, Amhara. In Kombolcha, anecdotes about men seeking financial security through marrying women who plan to migrate to Middle Eastern countries or through sending their wives to these places are increasingly common.
At the age of 22, Zebiba hatched an escape plan from the lifelong poverty in her household. She decided to go to Saudi Arabia to take a job as a domestic worker to support herself and her family. First, she went to Addis Ababa to work as a domestic worker to save money for the journey. She got her passport for 300 ETB ($15). However, because the cost of her migration was much higher than expected, she was obliged to work in Addis Ababa for longer than she had planned initially.
When she went back to Kombolcha to visit her family she unexpectedly met her future husband. He soon proposed for marriage and tied Nikah with her with the permission of her uncle. Shortly afterwards he offered his assistance in facilitating her travel to Saudi Arabia by paying the 4000 ETB ($200) for brokers, which she could not afford at the time. What she did not know was that this was a clever plan for securing a constant income through the remittances that she would eventually send from Saudi Arabia.
In a desire to be the right type of wife, Zebiba accepted that her full salary in Saudi Arabia was paid into her husband’s bank account. Like many other women who abide by the norms outlining how married women should ideally behave, she gave up her financial power with the assumption that her husband would spend her hard-earned money to their mutual benefit in the future.
However, upon her return, when she wanted a say in the spending, he prevented her from acquiring the money and controlled what she could and could not buy. In spite of living off her migrant earnings and never contributing to household expenses, he filed for a divorce when she was nine months pregnant with his baby. As we never had the opportunity to interview Zebiba’s former husband, we can only speculate about his justification of this move but we know that she felt misused. She believed that in her husband’s eyes the pregnancy had rendered her useless because she would not be able to return to Saudi Arabia to earn money for their household. Zebiba was bitter. In accordance with the local norms, she had supported her husband and not her natal family as initially planned before marrying, and now her natal relatives were angry with her. She felt alone.
Family legislation only helps women like Zebiba partially. Although the divorce settlement in court ruled that she should get half of the money she had remitted, the court ruling supported patriarchal privilege, in that it allowed for a deduction in the sum of remittance. Her husband had spent part of her earnings building a house and the court ruled that the property would be considered that of the husband, because it was built on his family’s land.
The state needs to do more for women to ensure that social change is to their benefit. It has been the norm in the Kombolcha area that men controlled resources because they were bringing money and other resources into the household, but with the increase in women’s international migration, many women have become breadwinners in their household. However, this change has not resulted in a shift locally in the control over household resources. If normative ideas and values about male privileges are left unchallenged, the likelihood of economic abuse of women is immense. Zebiba’s story shows that as it is currently, the legal system in Ethiopia does not support women’s quest for parity in resource control within marriage sufficiently. Changes in legislation and legal practices are necessary to protect women from being caught in similar situations as Zebiba.