Changing course in Ethiopia

Article Date

31 March 2014

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

On a recent visit to the Amhara region of Ethiopia, I met Bruktawit, a 27-year-old primary school teacher who exemplifies what it takes to keep young girls in school: intense commitment, personal sacrifice and a deeply rooted belief that young girls deserve an education.

Bruktawit is the focal point for an innovative intervention — supported by the David & Lucile Packard Foundation and implemented by the Amhara Development Association (ADA) — to keep girls in school, promote sexual and reproductive health education, and ultimately delay marriage for girls. Established in 1992, ADA is a nonprofit organization made up of more than 3.3 million members that work across sectors to promote economic and social progress in Amhara. Through the Packard-supported project, called “Improving Sexual and Reproductive Health Practices of Young Girls in the Amhara Region,” ADA partners with primary school teachers like Bruktawit to achieve meaningful, sustainable change in how girls’ education is perceived. It also focuses on mainstreaming sexual and reproductive health education within the school system. The scope of ADA’s project activities across Amhara—the third largest region in Ethiopia—is impressive: between 2010 and 2013, ADA reached more than 140,000 students and trained 3,490 teachers in the region.

Over the next two years ICRW will assess how ADA’s project has worked and evaluate its impact on keeping girls in school. As demonstrated by our previous research, evidence on effective interventions to promote girls’ education and delay marriage in this region is desperately needed. Recent data indicates that 37 percent of women aged 20-24 in Amhara were married when they were still children—before they turned 15—seriously jeopardizing their health and that of their children. Early marriage also curtails girls’ education and violates their rights to self-determination and to living a fulfilled, healthy life.

But educators like Bruktawit are making a difference. She applies basic training in counseling provided by ADA to help students struggling with a variety of problems. For instance, some girls are in need of contraception, and are referred to a health extension worker with whom Bruktawit works closely. The project intentionally links teachers with health workers, as well as police and community leaders. At times she finds girls who are battling against their parents’ wishes for an early marriage. When such a case becomes serious, Bruktawit will involve the community and call police for protection, as such situations can be dangerous for the girl, as well as those trying to assist her. The community where Bruktawit works has prevented three girls from being forced into marriage since ADA began working in the area, enabling the potential brides to fulfill their aspirations for education and beyond.

Bruktawit also uses her ADA training to lead classes for her female students every two weeks, including six modules of “life skills education” which covers subjects such as setting goals, resisting peer pressure and making sound decisions. Bruktawit teaches girls about a range of sexual and reproductive health topics, too, for example how to prevent pregnancy and protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections. Through her work, she hopes to enhance her students’ confidence and ability to negotiate relationships, and also prepare them for puberty and its related changes.

For many girls, Bruktawit’s classes are their only opportunity to learn about topics that are integral to their health and wellbeing. Misinformation is abundant, particularly when it comes to menstruation: in this region, many women are married before they have their first period, and its arrival is commonly associated with sexual initiation. Subsequently, menstruation can be a highly shameful and stigmatizing experience for girls, and the lack of toilets and running water in schools means that many stay home—up to seven days every month—while on their period. These absences severely undercut girls’ academic potential, frequently causing them to fall behind their male classmates, repeat grades, or even drop out of school.

To address this issue, Bruktawit —like other teachers trained by ADA—distributes sanitary napkins and teaches a simple technique to make them by hand to ensure that girls can move freely and attend school while menstruating. The “menstruation management room” where Bruktawit offers her services is a separate structure from the school and includes a wash area with water and a small bed, providing girls with a safe, private space to attend to their hygienic needs and rest when needed.

The room was constructed by community members whom ADA also engages as part of the project. In order to amplify the work of Bruktawit and other teachers, ADA helps establish community groups to identify and address specific barriers to girls’ education at the grassroots level. In the community surrounding Bruktawit’s school, the group holds regular events to raise awareness about the importance of educating girls and instructs parents on how to make their home environment conducive to girls’ education – for example, by ensuring that daughters are not overburdened with household chores. A core aspect of ADA’s project is establishing these groups and supporting them to function more effectively. As a result of these efforts, ADA helped mobilize around 170 community groups committed to girls’ education.

When I asked Bruktawit if she enjoys what she does, she told me, “Fifty, fifty … I like to teach this information, but it is hard work.” In spite of the hardships she experiences, her commitment is undeniable. Bruktawit lives in a neighboring village, and on weekends she has to walk eight miles over rugged terrain just to reach the main road to catch a bus home.  She is not compensated for her additional work as a project focal point. Bruktawit does not receive extra pay for her biweekly classes or counseling services, or for the risks she endures when visiting parents to try and prevent an early marriage.

But Bruktawit knows that no material value can be placed on the opportunities she is helping to create for her students. She smiles when she tells me that her students want to become doctors, teachers, journalists and, in one case, a sports star. Perhaps she sees their answers as an indication that the confidence she has been working so hard to instill, as well as exemplify through her actions, is starting to take form.

Sophie Namy is a gender and evaluation specialist at ICRW.