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“I said, ‘church is the best school,’ ” said Ms. Paulos, recounting her experience at the college. “How do we teach our children? If the church starts to say something, people will listen. It’s not about buying airtime on TV and saying blah, blah. They won’t listen to that. Because one way or another, it’s about following Jesus’ words. It’s about discipline. It’s all about respect, giving dignity and equality between men and women.”

Until now, few would argue that the empowerment of women has been a primary concern of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The dominant faith community of Ethiopia (according to the government’s May 2007 census, Orthodox Christians make up 43.5 percent of the population, down from 50 percent in 1994), the Orthodox Church is still recovering from damages inflicted upon it by the Marxist Derg regime (1974-1991) while adapting to a rapidly modernizing society.

Efforts to sensitize clergy to women’s issues have begun, however. The task has proven nothing short of herculean for the resource-poor church; most priests receive no formal training and little theological formation.

Emebet Woldeyes, who since 2004 has led the Gender and Development Division of the church’s Development and Interchurch Aid Commission, remains optimistic.

“With half a million clergy, we have structure at the grassroots level in every village. Using this, we are trying to challenge the system. Priests are respected by society. So we utilize them as development agents to preach about women’s equality, which is written in Scripture. The Bible is all about justice, equality and fairness.”

Formerly the Woman and Development Division, leaders of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church revamped the division’s mandate and changed its name in 1995. Since then, it has sought ways to affect long-term change in addition to helping women secure the basics. In the past, explained Ms. Woldeyes, the division helped women only meet their immediate needs, “like water and income-generating schemes, which improve the day-to-day lives of women, but don’t challenge the system at all.”

Challenging the system means mainstreaming gender issues into all of the church’s development programs as well as the seminary curriculum. This process involves bringing out into the open delicate topics such as sexual violence, H.I.V./AIDS, genital cutting and women’s roles in family and society.

Ms. Woldeyes admitted that changing how priests understand gender issues is a tall order. “For example,” she said, some “priests articulate that wives should obey their husbands. But in the same verses of Ephesians, it also says that husbands should love their wives as Christ loves the church. But some only preach the first part. That kind of preaching has a negative influence on the relationships of men and women.”

But Ms. Woldeyes noted that there has been progress. “Fifteen years ago,” she asserted, “there was no role for women in any of the church’s functions.” Now, women participate in choirs, prayer groups and committees. “It might be a drop of water in the ocean, but participation is increasing.”

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