Recognizing Women: Fostering a Safe Space for Girls

CNEWA recognizes the contributions of women to our mission in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable throughout the world. Today, and for the rest of March, we are highlighting the stories of women in CNEWA’s world, as told in ONE magazine and on our blog through the years.

In Meki, Ethiopia, the staff of Kidane Meheret Girls Hostel ensures that the girls in their care — many of whom are victims of abuse — can work through their trauma with counseling, receive a quality education and foster a caring community among one another. The home is run by Sister Anney Joseph and has several women on staff as social workers, such as Yohanna Haile and Tigist Mekonen.

Below is an excerpt from ONE’s December 2022 story “Broken, Not Crushed.” The full article may be accessed here.

Girls and women face many hardships in Ethiopia — social inequality, domestic abuse, exploitation and sexual violence. Sadly, sweeping crimes against girls under the rug is common.

Child marriage, for instance, despite being banned by the Ethiopian government in 2000, remains a significant problem. According to a UNICEF study in 2020, 40 percent of Ethiopian women aged 20-24 were married before the age of 18, and 14 percent were married before their 15th birthday. These statistics place Ethiopia 14th worldwide for the prevalence of child marriage based on national percentages. However, Ethiopia is ranked fourth worldwide for the absolute number of women aged 20-24 who were married before age 18, nearly 2.3 million. India, Bangladesh and Nigeria take the top three spots.

The abduction of girls for forced marriage is a related problem, often linked with extreme poverty, and more prevalent in the country’s south. A 2016 UNICEF report indicates at least 13 percent of the married women aged 12-24 in one southern region had been abducted and forced to marry their abductor.

The staff at Kidane Meheret Girls Hostel in Meki works to protect girls from exploitation and violence and assists them in building a brighter future. They say the need is greater than what the Catholic-run home can provide. The increased cost of living creates greater stress on families and girls bear the brunt; it also prevents the administrators from taking in more girls.

“When the hostel was founded, we were able to accept 31 girls. The number had to decrease over time due to the cost of living,” explains Ms. Mekonen. “We currently have 24 girls and were only able to take in two new girls this year.”

Sister Anney Joseph, a member of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Christians, an Indian order, has directed the home for the past four years, managing the entire operation, including raising funds to cover the girls’ school fees, food and other living expenses.

“A drop of water makes the ocean,” says Sister Anney. “We are always grateful to God for the support we get.”

“This is a work of love. Donors don’t know these girls, but reaching them through CNEWA is a big deal for them,” she continues. “If CNEWA’s support was not there it would be impossible for us to continue.”

The girls study at Meki Catholic School nearby. All close in age, they also receive “counseling and spiritual advice … without mentioning the fact that some of them might have experienced violence, loss of family or other issues,” says Ms. Mekonen. “We try to teach them that they can see beyond those issues and build their lives positively.”

The young women are encouraged to pursue their education. …

The girls may live there until they graduate high school. Then, for those who wish to go to university, the leadership team of the home coordinates a sponsorship through the Meki Catholic Secretariat.

More than 15 alumnae have graduated with university degrees in a variety of fields, including accounting, medicine, public health administration, journalism and agriculture. …

“We take on the responsibility of the girls like mothers. If they are sick, we take care of them,” she says. “We all live with love and respect.”

Yohanna Haile, a social worker who has worked at the home for three years, explains the girls are given daily chores to help prepare them for life on their own. They clean their individual rooms, the bathroom, the dining room, and their surroundings as assigned, according to a schedule, and they cook their stews every Sunday.

“Whatever may be the background of the girls, when they come here, they are provided with a better life than they had before,” says Ms. Haile. “The home is where they learn a lot of things about life and exchange experiences with each other.

“It is a place they love. It is a place they want to maintain for the girls who will succeed them.”

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