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“What we’ve accomplished so far is a drop in the ocean,” said Mahdere Paulos, executive director of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, a nonprofit organization that, while providing free legal services to women, is credited for raising the profile of women’s issues throughout the country. “The laws are pretty good, but some attitudes can’t be changed by reforming laws.”

Harmful traditional practices, such as child marriage and genital cutting, remain commonplace. Abuse persists. Sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development, the Demographic and Health Survey of 2005 found that three quarters of Ethiopian women have undergone genital cutting.

According to a U.N. report released a year later, “Ending Violence Against Women,” 60 percent of Ethiopian women had been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. The same report estimated that 19 percent of all women were married by the age of 15; in some regions, such as Amhara, half of the women are married by age 15. Overall, the median age at which women in rural Ethiopia marry is 17.

“Change has come very slowly,” said Minia Hadgu, who runs the laboratory at the social services center sponsored by the Medical Missionaries of Mary in Addis Ababa. The 51- year-old health care professional knows well the detrimental impact the lack of education and gender-related violence have on women.

“Things remain on paper a long time. It takes a long time for them to be applied — years and years. Take education. Girls don’t read at the level where they can help themselves. There are so many single mothers. Many rapes. School dropouts. Girls can’t choose whom they marry. Change is very slow.”

Despite these grim statistics, most agree that the situation for women has markedly improved in the last generation or two.

“A farm girl reaching 10th grade? You wouldn’t have seen that in my mother’s life,” explained Teigist Lemma, a human resource economist based in Addis Ababa with decades of experience in local community development. “A woman working in the market? That was considered indecent. But nowadays, women are encouraged to earn an income. They’re more conversant. They try to talk. They’re not as shy as they used to be or were expected to be traditionally. These are positive signs. But if given the chance, women can do so much more.”

“There’s no way to sever culture from religion,” said Ms. Paulos, stressing the pivotal role the church plays in shaping and improving the status of women in Ethiopian society. “And you know that you can’t suppress secular law.”

Last autumn, Holy Trinity Theological College — the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s primary theological school and seminary located in Addis Ababa — invited Ms. Paulos to speak to the seminarians about women’s issues. Thrilled at the opportunity to address future leaders of Ethiopia’s most influential institution, she accepted the invitation wholeheartedly.

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