A Reason to Live

A Reason to Live

By: Brandy Campbell with Tigist Gizachew in Ethiopia

It began innocently enough. Eighteen-year-old Mulu sat at the bus stop, waiting to board the crowded bus home.

She must have been exhausted after spending the day cleaning homes in the city.

Her back must have ached — an ache that would only intensify on the jarring ride to her parents' home in a remote village.

So when a man told her he was going to her village and offered her a ride, of course she accepted. It would be so nice in that comfortable car.

The trip home would go so much faster. She must have thanked him as she crawled into the front seat next to him.

But the words of thanks died on her lips when she realized he wasn't taking her home.

It's a common occurrence in the rural villages of Ethiopia: An older man kidnaps a teenage girl, often as young as 12.

He takes her home and rapes her. And then, that man brazenly marches to his victim's home. He presents the "damaged goods" to her family. A father cannot find a suitable husband for his daughter who is no longer a virgin.

She is a source of shame to her mother. And in a bizarre moment of irony, the victim is forced to marry her attacker.

"All my dreams and hopes were darkened the day I was abducted," says Mulu, who was forced to move in with her abductor and live as his wife.

"I tried to make the best out of the situation I was in. I started working as a daily laborer and took care of the house to the best of my ability. I just wanted to make my parents proud of me."

But it didn't take long for Mulu to see that her husband was not well — physically or mentally.

His increased addiction to alcohol and chat, a common drug in Ethiopia, made him unstable. Most days he stayed home and slept. He lost his appetite and grew thin and weak.

Mulu began to sell sweet potatoes in the market so they wouldn't be evicted from their home.

It wasn't the ideal life to bring a child into. But Mulu was happy when she found out that she was pregnant.

When the time came for her to give birth, Mulu did so in her home with the help of her neighbors. But her son, her firstborn, lived only a week.

"My whole world went dark with the death of my baby. Some said he had pneumonia and some said it was an evil spirit," says Mulu.

"I never knew the exact reason because I wasn't able to take him to the health center."

A few months later, another pregnancy. This time, Mulu saved up the money to deliver her child at the hospital. This time, a baby girl.

"I counted the days, and when she became 1 week old, I celebrated," says Mulu.

"Then the second week passed and I was sure everything would be OK. But the third week she started to get ill, and I lost my baby when she was 1 month old."

Mulu was heartbroken. She had no idea why her children were dying. But when she found out she was pregnant for the third time, she wanted to die too.

"The day I knew I was pregnant again, I wanted to end my life. I didn't want to go through the pain of burying my baby."

One morning, when Mulu was six months pregnant, she was having coffee with her neighbors. When she first heard them talking about an organization that registers babies and their mothers, she tuned out the conversation.

She had no living children. And she had no hope that this little one growing inside her would live.

But she perked up when one of the women mentioned that this organization also accepted pregnant mothers.

That afternoon she went to the church compound where they were registering mothers into Compassion's Child Survival Program.

When workers heard her story, they didn't hesitate to complete her registration. The Child Survival Program was made for mothers like Mulu.

Zene, the coordinator of the Child Survival Program, was particularly taken with Mulu. She wanted to help this young woman have a healthy pregnancy and child.

But she also suspected a reason for the death of Mulu's babies — a suspicion that was confirmed when Mulu tested positive for HIV.

Mulu thought her diagnosis was a death sentence for both her and her unborn child, but Zene reassured her that much could be done for them.

"I hung on to every single word Zene was saying about how I can get through this," says Mulu.

"But when she told me that I can give birth to a healthy baby, I jumped up with joy. All my grief disappeared in that moment."

Mulu immediately began antiretroviral therapy, and several times each month she walked 45 minutes to the clinic for her prenatal care.

Three months after she joined the Child Survival Program, she gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Ikram — which translates to "my gift."

"I cried tears of joy when they handed me my baby girl," says Mulu. "She tested negative for the virus and I praised God for His gift. Had it not been for the care of the staff my baby would have been dead like the first two."

Today, Mulu is a confident, happy mother of an active toddler. Mulu has attended income-generation classes at the church, and she has started a business selling corn and other vegetables.

Each month, she and the other mothers gather for Bible studies, and she looks forward to her visits from Zene, who often visits Mulu in her home to check on the progress of both mother and child.

And this once-traumatized teenager and grieving mother says that she finally has her life back.

"The joy I feel when I see my girl is indescribable," she says. "I am here today because of the Child Survival Program, and my baby is alive because of them.

"I have so much hope for the future and I rest assured that the [program] is there for me as well as my baby, no matter what."