Breaking Barriers

Slowly but surely, writes Paul Wachter, the lives of Ethiopia’s women are improving

by Paul Wachter

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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.

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