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An Uphill Battle

Why laws alone cannot close Ethiopia’s entrenched gender gap

by Peter Lemieux

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On a dry, sun-drenched morning in Meki, a sleepy commercial town in the Rift Valley of east-central Ethiopia, a caravan of horse-drawn carts rumbles to a halt at the front gate of Meki Catholic School, kicking up a cloud of dust. Packed tightly in the carts, rambunctious schoolchildren clad in tidy blue uniforms grab their backpacks, leap to the parched earth and bolt across the threshold into the schoolyard.

Waiting for the sound of the morning bell, the 1,500-strong student body — ages 7 to 18 in grades one through 12 — fills every nook and cranny of the school’s courtyard. The youngest children play games, rummage through their backpacks and giggle. Older ones huddle in pods, some chitchat, others cram for a test in their civics and ethics class.

If growing up in Ethiopia these days were a race, these children would appear to be off to a good start. But a closer look reveals an unfair contest, one that favors the boys.

While Meki Catholic School makes every effort to maintain gender balance — an equal number of boys and girls make up its primary grades — the number of girls enrolled in the school’s secondary classes drops sharply. For the girls fortunate enough to remain in school, the harsh reality of Ethiopia’s tradition of gender disparity hits harder than a stiff headwind in a 50-yard dash.

Against a metal fence enclosing the school grounds, Messeret Yohannes, an 18-year-old senior, discusses the future with her girlfriends. All expect to go to college. And all hope to become professionals either in accounting, banking, education or medicine. Given the school’s outstanding achievements, high aspirations such as theirs are certainly realistic. From among the graduating class, 94 percent are expected to attend college, compared to 30 to 35 percent nationally.

“I want to be a lawyer or maybe go into business,” says Messeret, whose voice grows bolder and more confident as the boys move out of eavesdropping distance.

As with other students at the school, most of these girls hail from families who make their living from subsistence farming and small trade. When asked to explain why women make up less than 20 percent of their senior class, the girls begin talking all at once. Cutting through the chatter, Messeret takes the lead and speaks for the group. “That’s the economic part of it,” she asserts.

“The drop-off happens throughout the country at the high school level, not just at our school,” adds the school’s popular headmaster, Brother Betre Fisseha, F.S.C.

“It’s the legacy of the Ethiopian social and cultural tradition. Girls are burdened with a big part of the families’ work, especially in rural areas. If their parents need help fetching water, herding animals or taking care of younger siblings, the girls go home. This obstructs the continuity of their education, particularly following elementary school.”

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Tags: Ethiopia Education Ethiopian Orthodox Church Women (rights/issues) Socioreligious programs