From ONE Magazine

An Uphill Battle

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.”

Depending on whom is asked and which report is examined, the pace of progress on gender issues in Ethiopia runs the gamut. According to some, Ethiopian women in recent years have gained unprecedented ground in record speed in achieving equal access to health care, education and economic development. Others, however, paint a much less rosy picture, citing data that indicate Ethiopian society’s longstanding inequalities remain as entrenched and pervasive as ever.

To make their case, the former point to social trends and milestones established in the past 40 years. Literacy and education rates among women in rural communities, where some 85 percent of Ethiopians live, have increased dramatically in recent years. Today, more women per capita attend college than at any other time in the country’s history. And more women hold managerial positions in both public and private sectors.

“Ethiopian tradition has long held that a woman’s place is in the home. While we don’t expect that to change fully, there’s been a big jump,” explained Abeba Dantamo, the 48-year-old deputy administrator at the Medical Missionaries of Mary Counseling and Social Services Center in Addis Ababa.

“A lot has changed. In urban areas, some men are taking on traditional female roles in the household, and vice versa. And people are having more informal discussions about gender than before.”

For its part, the Ethiopian government has stepped up its effort to empower women. Adopted in 1994 and engendering the country’s first multiparty democratically elected government, Ethiopia’s Constitution includes a set of provisions explicitly providing for women’s rights, including a call to enact policies aimed at correcting historic gender discrimination.

Gradually, legislators have reformed Ethiopian law. In 2001, the government established the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to mainstream gender issues and promote gender equality. The same year, new legislation guaranteed women equal footing on issues related to marriage, parental authority, child custody and property. In 2005, a new penal code criminalized gender-based violence, including female genital cutting and domestic violence. More recently, the government has led an effort to recruit women to elected office.

In the past two decades, groups advancing women’s issues have also proliferated across the country, undertaking a wide range of activities, such as advocacy, monitoring government and providing social services. Ethiopia’s Catholic and Orthodox churches, for example, have established offices specifically for women’s issues.

“Women now have places to go if they have problems,” said Selam Yilma, a professor at Royal College in Addis Ababa who is preparing to launch a biannual scholarly journal on women’s issues.

But for some observers, Ethiopia’s gender gap remains vast. And though they concede much of the scaffolding for true gender equality has been erected, they point to a host of alarming data indicating that most of the heavy lifting remains to be done.

“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.

“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.”

Below the second-floor window of a simple structure in Gulele, a poor neighborhood along Addis Ababa’s hilly western boundary, energetic children shout Sister Myriam McLaughlin’s name. Within seconds, the jovial nun pops her head out the window, returns their calls, blows kisses, waves goodbye and pulls her head back inside, laughing.

Established in 1995 by the Good Shepherd Sisters, the facility, which contains offices and classrooms, houses the Community Development Project Gulele, a Catholic initiative to empower women and educate children. The organization offers a host of courses, including a community leadership development program, literacy classes, a microcredit and savings program and job-training workshops. The initiative also provides child care for participating women. For the neighborhood’s underprivileged children, tutoring is available as well as lessons in developing solid study habits.

Building the program from scratch, in one of Ethiopia’s poorest neighborhoods, was by no means easy recalls Sister Myriam.

“I hated coming out here. It was so dark, drab and depressing,” she said about the center’s early days. “Nothing. Not even a cup of water. Nothing. Zero. Zero. Zero. The place was swarming with children and responsibilities, a maze the women didn’t know how to get out of. It was ‘give me, give me, give me’ — water, toilet, school fees, clothes,” she continued. “We thought if we could get them to the level of poverty, we’d have done our job.”

In a conference room down the hall, about 30 women gather for a meeting of Delta, or Development Education and Leadership Teams in Action. Seated in front of the group, three women performed sketches as part of a role-playing exercise demonstrating two different approaches to community development: aristocratic and democratic.

The sketch of the “aristocratic” approach drew laughter, as the “development worker” talked over the two “local beneficiaries,” whose efforts to express their needs fell on deaf ears. The sketch of the “democratic” approach, in which the “development worker” listened attentively to the “local beneficiaries,” taking notes and asking questions, elicited nods of approval.

One of the sisters’ most successful programs, Delta trains women in community organizing and civic leadership. Hundreds of women have benefited, learning how to be active agents of change in their communities. “People were sitting on their tails,” explained Sister Myriam in a pronounced Irish brogue.

“We told them, ‘You have major problems here, but nothing that can’t be solved. God is here. But God can’t do everything. He’s waiting for you to get off your backside and do something about it.’ ”

For their part, the sisters’ microcredit and savings program teaches business and money management skills and helps women obtain loans for income-generating projects and small businesses.

Aregesh Ayele, a 47-year-old resident who lives near the facility, purchased a new energy-efficient stove with a loan obtained through the program. With the stove, she bakes injera, an Ethiopian staple, which she then sells to local businesses. Recently, Mrs. Ayele signed a two-year contract with a hotel. Steady profits have enabled her to repay her loan in full and now supplement the $50 her husband earns per month as a line worker at a nearby shoe factory. The couple’s combined income has paid for a new telephone line at their home and the tuition fees for all seven of their children.

“Poverty means vulnerability and low status. But if you can get a woman independent and working for her family, there’s a ray of hope, there’s energy,” said Sister Myriam.

“And if you get their children engaged in the educational system, then you’re opening doors to a brighter future.”

Peter Lemieux is a documentary photographer and writer based in San Francisco.