I visited Ethiopia last week in my capacity as International Development Minister. This is my blog from the field.
An early morning flight takes me away from the relative hustle and bustle of Addis Ababa, and out to a remote village in Amhara in the north of the Ethiopia where I meet a young girl, around 16 years of age in a village called Tagel Wodefit. I’m here because I want to learn about her life. In particular, I want to find out how being married at a young age has affected her opportunities and choices. Her story is a depressing one. At around age 13 she was forced to drop out of school to marry a man she had never met. Desperately unhappy, she ran away repeatedly, but either her family or her in-laws always found her and made her return to her husband. Just when she thought she could take no more, her family accepted her back in to their household, but they have not let her return to school. Instead, she spends her days looking after her siblings, fetching water and doing housework with her mother.
I feel sad as I leave her. Her life is not so awful by some standards – but it could have been so much more, and I feel disheartened by the loss of potential. How different might her life be had she not been married off and had instead been allowed to finished school? She had never been out of her immediate area and with no radio in the village, no mobile and no school – literally there is no information or pathway that can change her life. Tragically, her story is by no means unique. In Ethiopia, one out of three girls do not attend school, and in the Amhara region, 50% of girls are married by the time they turn 18.
I travel a little further down the road to talk to a village who are participating in a DFID funded project called ‘Finote Hiwot’ that works to increase the age at which girls in Ethiopia are married and have their first child. They do this by bringing together whole communities – girls, boys, parents, religious leaders, elders and teachers – and involving them in conversations to collectively identify issues, and come up with solutions. Through these conversations, there comes a shift in traditionally held values, attitudes and practises, and it’s this shift that will contribute to the African-led critical mass that will end child marriage. And it’s working! I meet some of the girls from the community – they are confident, articulate and opinionated, and even though many of them have some quite disturbing experiences of early marriage, thanks to Finote Hiwot, they most certainly know their own minds. The investments made in these girls now will provide Ethiopia with longer term benefits. It’s widely documented that girls who stay in school and are empowered to make their own decisions tend to have fewer children, have them later, and invest more in their health and education. That’s exactly what these girls want for their own children – to be happy, healthy, educated and employed. I’m really pleased that DFID is providing support to help girls such as I’ve met today stay in school and realise their ambitions.
My last stop of the day is to Sertse-Dingle School (the region’s first mainstream school to accept young people and children with disabilities) to listen to a focus group as they talk about ‘Yegna’. For the uninitiated, Yegna is an Ethiopian, all-girl group who have their own radio show. With their radio drama, talk show and music, they are incredibly popular, and they champion the potential of Ethiopian girls. They don’t shy away from dealing with hard hitting issues such as female empowerment, gender based violence and child marriage. They reach an audience of more than 5 million listeners across Addis Ababa and the Amhara region, and is yet another great another example of an initiative that aims to challenge beliefs and bring about positive social change. It’s clear from the conversations that the listening group is having that they are all hooked! They tune in to the radio shows avidly, and they discuss the issues with their friends and families afterwards. There are listening clubs all across the region too where communities get together to talk about Yegna, and if the enthusiastic conversations I’ve heard today at the school are anything to go by, they are a massive force to be reckoned with!
With the Girl Summit in a few weeks, today has been a most timely reminder of the very reasons why I do this job, and why I love it so much. Girls and women have the right to live free from violence and discrimination and achieve their potential. Our role is to get behind them and support them. I’ve seen that change is possible, and I urge you all to get involved.