Elizabeth McKee Gore, the UN Foundation’s Executive Director of Global Partnerships, just wrapped up an extensive trip to Ethiopia, which brought her from rural villages to urban centers to everywhere in between. And while it’s hard to re-create such a dynamic trip in words, Elizabeth is doing exactly that with a blog series on her incredible experiences.
Elizabeth’s on-the-ground stories capture just how far the work of the UN Foundation and its UN partners reaches, whether in health or education, refugees or adolescent girls, peacekeeping or clean water.
December 2, 2009
I am sitting in the small village of Lalibela, a sub-district of Achefer in Ethiopia. Two sets of beautiful eyes are staring at me. They belong to two young girls who are astonished that I got married at 30 years old and that I don’t have children.
We are visiting a project with the UN Fund for Population (UNFPA) called Berhane Hewan. The project works to prevent child marriage and ensure girls go to primary school. This area has some of the highest child marriage rates in the world. Half of all girls in this region are married before their 15th birthday.
Funded by the Nike Foundation and the UN Foundation, this UNFPA program focuses on four areas: adolescent girl’s formal education, adolescent girl’s non-formal education, a married girls program, and a community program.
About 150 community members arrived to meet us and tell us about what they have accomplished about preventing child marriage, literacy, hygiene, family planning, and vocational skills, such as home improvement and agriculture. Interlaced within the curriculum is education about HIV prevention, the downsides of child marriage, birth spacing, and ending female genital mutilation (FGM).
I was surprised by the boldness of the girls, none of whom were intimidated to speak up, and by the support of the men in the village. The village elders described the program as a true “light” for the community.
The community’s support is critical to the program’s success. It’s a truly participatory process. Twice a month, the entire community gathers, which includes parents, young married women, young girls, and boys. Together, they discuss harmful traditional practices such as child marriage and FGM.
One of the teaching tools for the community is public plays. The most popular play here is titled, “If you marry me off today, you spoil my future.” Bizuwayan Beriuum, a member of the married girls program, said, “The most important part of this program is the cultural shift it has provided the community in what is supported or not. Child marriage and FGM are now not accepted practices.”
If you want to learn more about the prevention of child marriage, please visit the UN Foundation Girl Fund.
November 24, 2009
In a small one-room education center next to the bus stop in a slum in Addis Ababa, I met seven little girls who impacted me more in a few hours of talking than has any other day in my entire career. I can honestly say that a little piece of my soul is still sitting in the palm of the hand of a girl named Zusiash Mersha.
The Biruh Tesfa project, facilitated by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), is funded by the UN Foundation and the Nike Foundation. Ethiopia has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world, with more than half of girls married off before the age of 15. Some girls run away and find a bus to Addis Ababa, escaping with the hope they will find a better life with more opportunities and economic prosperity waiting for them there.
But when these girls get off the bus in Addis, they step into an environment where -- since they often are unable to read or write and have no money -- they are stuck. Waiting for them are seemingly helpful individuals called brokers who offer them jobs, a place to sleep, and food. These brokers put the girls in labor-intensive jobs such as domestic work, or worse yet, force them into becoming sex workers. The girls vary from ages 7 to 18.
In response to this need, the Biruh Tesfa project sends mentors -- young women who are community leaders -- to find the girls and convince their employers to let the girls participate in a non-formal education program at their local center for just two hours a day. Aynalen Kibebew, a mentor for the program, said the hardest part of her job is convincing employers to let them leave for this short amount of time.
When girls arrive at the center, they find people who care. The girls receive a number of services, including literacy training, health checks, assistance obtaining government identification cards, and someone who checks on the girls to make sure they are not subjected to violence within the homes and in the city.
More than 600 girls are now moving through the program. We had the opportunity to visit with seven of them.
Extremely shy at first, these girls took a while to warm up to us. Once they did, they began to share stories that would make our afterschool specials look trivial. Senait Bergene, 11, was so shy I had to tickle her to get a sound out of her. She shared very quietly with us that she was a sex worker when she first arrived in the city. One of the mentors found her and quickly helped get her into domestic work.
She now gets to go to school and see girls her own age. Most of the time, these girls may spend years working in one home without ever interacting with anyone outside the walls. When I asked all of them if they ever get to play, none of the girls understood that question.
Habtamu Demele, the local coordinator of the program, was proud to tell me that they now have a formal relationship with the government, and 220 girls are now in formal primary school night classes. Most girls still have to work all day before their employers will let them go to school at night.
We asked if any of the girls were willing to share a description of her normal day. Zusiash Mersha stood up to talk. Only 12 years old, she says she wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to start work at 6 a.m. She provides breakfast for her employer and then cleans until 2:30 p.m. At 2:30 pm., she is allowed to go straight to the center until 5 p.m. She said that this is the best part of her day. She then has to return to the house and work for her employer’s bus station motel from 6 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. At 1:30, she tries to read as much as she can to educate herself before she falls asleep.
Zusiash was the only girl who never smiled by the end of our day together. I can’t stop thinking about her, and I am so thankful that she at least has the Biruh Tesfa program for two hours of her 18-hour work day. With more resources and more awareness, we can support these seven girls and thousands like them. I will forever think of Zusiash Mersha; she is the inspiration for all of my work in the future.
To learn more about these girls and how to support them, visit the UN Foundation Girl Fund.
"I hate early marriage. I was married at an early age and my in-laws forced me to sleep with my husband and he made me suffer all night. After that, whenever day becomes night, I get worried thinking that it will be like that. This is what I hate most." (Amhara girl, age 11, betrothed at age 5)
Because of the complexity of the reasons for child marriage, the Berhan Hewan project works to address a variety of interventions, including educational and livelihood opportunities, economic drivers, and societal/cultural norms and pressures. The project is one of the first rigorously evaluated programs to delay the age of marriage in sub-Saharan Africa.
As a result of the program, girls were less likely to be married, were less likely to have children, and not only knew more about sexual and reproductive health but were more likely to discuss topics such as HIV/AIDS, family planning, and problems with their marriage among their friends.
Due to the success of this program and the support of local and government leaders, the project is scheduled to expand to additional communities. Additionally, in 2008, UNFPA, the Ministry of Youth and Sports, and the Population Council started a national campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of early marriage. The “Stop Early Marriage” campaign uses a variety of media and advocacy actions to raise awareness throughout Ethiopia, including a convening of 30 of Ethiopia’s prominent artists who created a painting to express their feelings on early marriage. The canvas totaled 100 meters – the largest painting ever painted in Ethiopia.
Even a small investment can make a difference in the lives of the girls in Ethiopia. For an out of school girl, just $10 can cover the cost of school materials for one year and a government clinic card to receive free family planning health services at government facilities.
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