ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Breaking Barriers

Gradually, the lot of Ethiopia’s women is improving

A ravine separates Atse Tekle Ghiorgis Elementary School — a tidy compound of converted shipping containers and compressed block classrooms — from the homes of many of its 850 students. Most of these dwellings are makeshift huts, grouped together in a shantytown in the heart of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. They lack electricity, running water and sewers.

It was a half-day — the children would be dismissed early for Timkat, Ethiopia’s Epiphany celebration — and Daughter of Charity Sister Mary Mitchell, the school’s principal, had time to reflect on the first few months of the school year.

“We’ve already had two girls drop out to get married,” she said. One was in sixth grade, the other in third.

“We encourage the children to at least finish the school, which runs until eighth grade. But many of the girls get married, which effectively ends their education.

“The prospects for these women are not good,” Sister Mary continued.

“They’re marrying husbands who are very poor, and they’ll be forced to beg for a living.”

Recently, Ethiopia has made great strides in education. For most of its history, until the early 1900’s, formal education was the exclusive province of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and limited to those joining the clergy and a few sons of the nobility. By the early 20th century, European Christian missionaries also had set up schools. And in 1907, the first public school, staffed by Coptic Orthodox monks, was established in Addis Ababa.

The education system expanded slowly, but got a push after a military junta, the Derg, overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. As part of the new government’s Communist agenda, the Derg greatly expanded access to education, though often at the expense of quality. In other matters, the Derg was not so progressive, unleashing a brutal reign of terror in which the regime suppressed religious institutions and political opponents, both real and imagined. The Derg was toppled in 1991.

The current Ethiopian government has redoubled educational efforts with a mind to meet the 2015 U.N. Millennium Development Goals of universal primary schooling and eliminating gender disparities in education.

Still, according to a 2006 report by the International Save the Children Alliance, Ethiopia is one of the sub-Saharan countries with the lowest rates of school enrollment for children. Only half of Ethiopian children attend school, and of those more than 60 percent are boys.

In higher education, gender disparity is more stark. In recent years, only about 15 percent of those graduating college have been women. A combination of factors is responsible, including “cultural barriers, household responsibilities, marriage and low expectations,” said Gerald Jones, CNEWA’s deputy regional director for Ethiopia.

With hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid pouring into Ethiopia each year, and a government committed to expanding education, CNEWA has focused its efforts on reaching the poorest of the poor — Ethiopians who otherwise would not be in school.

“Many of these children’s parents are beggars,” Sister Mary said of her students. “Many are the children of single mothers and some of the parents are H.I.V. positive. We also have about 70 orphans.

“If we didn’t take them in they’d be out begging. The government doesn’t have the capacity to follow up on them, to make sure they’re in school.” On weekends, many of the children do in fact take to Addis Ababa’s main roads to beg, Sister Mary said.

“But at least during the week, they’re here, and they’re getting an education and a square meal.”

Even in more financially stable schools, administrators also pay close attention to the progress of their female students, aware of the limited educational opportunities historically available to women.

“One thing we’ve done is create an after-school program for gifted girls, to encourage them even more in their studies,” said Christian Brother Retta Gezmu, the principal of Bisrate Gabriel, a K-12 Catholic school serving 1,600 children in Dira Dawa, a city in eastern Ethiopia. The school has slightly more boys than girls, but Brother Retta said girls are enrolling — and staying — in school in increasing numbers.

In grade 10, boys and girls take a national exam that determines which track — college preparatory or technical — they will follow for their final 2 years in high school.

“Bisrate Gabriel’s top student is a girl,” Brother Retta said.

While much progress is being made at relatively prosperous schools like Bisrate Gabriel (which CNEWA supported in the past), the greatest challenges lie with Ethiopia’s underserved poor.

“It helps if we reach the kids early,” said Genet Assefa, principal of the Bethlehem Day Care Center. The center, founded by the Good Shepherd Sisters in 1987, caters to the children of Cherkos, a slum in Addis Ababa that takes its name from the neighborhood church. (The sisters run a second day care facility in Addis Ababa, the Good Shepherd Sisters’ Center.)

On a recent visit to the Bethlehem center, more than 150 children, all under 7, were fully engaged in their classes. Some recited the English alphabet: “C! C is for cat.” Others practiced Amharic, their national language.

“The center serves two purposes,” said Mrs. Assefa. “It gives these children access to an early education that they wouldn’t ordinarily have, which will encourage them to go on to primary school and beyond. And it also frees up the parents, many of whom are single mothers, so that they can try to earn a living and improve their lives.”

Improving the lives of poor young adult women is an important part of CNEWA’s mandate. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Godano Rehabilitation Project, which serves about 140 women (and a few men), all under 20. Many are single mothers.

“It’s a common, sad story,” said Mulatu Tafesse, the Catholic layman who founded the program. “These girls come into Addis from the country to work in households, doing the cleaning and cooking. Many of them are raped, become pregnant and are fired. They can’t go back to their families because of the stigma, so they turn to begging or prostitution, and a prostitute in Ethiopia is very likely to get AIDS.”

Mr. Tafesse takes in as many women as he can. He has had many years of experience helping the needy. During Ethiopia’s famine of 1984-1985, he helped Save the Children bring relief to starving refugees (as did CNEWA’s Gerald Jones, his then-boss). At Godano, he also utilizes his professional experience as an engineer. By modifying shipping containers, Mr. Tafesse has erected a mini-city of classrooms, workshops and leisure areas. Living quarters are nearby.

For a year, the young women learn a variety of skills — cooking, hairdressing, computer literacy, handicrafts — and are given a basic education. Meanwhile, their infants receive appropriate attention.

The women earn some money, but the larger aim is to find them jobs after a year of training. Most do, and eventually many also reunite with their families.

On a countrywide scale, CNEWA’s efforts are a modest but significant part of what is needed to advance women’s lot in Ethiopia. But it will take broad social, cultural and legal changes to see women gain equal opportunities and equal status in this traditionally patriarchal society. Nonetheless, recent efforts in education have been encouraging, experts agreed.

“I would say that the overall progress made over the past 15 years in the education sector has been quite spectacular, certainly in terms of quantity, and that includes a vast increase in the number of girls attending primary schools,” Mr. Jones said.

But there remains much work to be done, he added. “We must break through the barriers that cause girls’ attendance in secondary and tertiary education to drop so dramatically from their present primary attendance rate.”

Back at Atse Tekle Ghiorgis, Sister Mary believes that improvements will come with more resources and hard work. “These are bright kids who are eager to learn. They just haven’t had a lot of opportunities.”

Paul Wachter is assistant editor of ONE magazine.

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