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Helping Ethiopia’s daughters stay in school

Ethiopia, September 22, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Felekech Endiris and one of her daughters in the small village of Fuchacha, southern Ethiopia. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    A young girl in the village of Holte, Derashe district, southern Ethiopia. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

“These days, I can barely sleep because I am so excited with ideas on what to do next," says 38-year-old Felekech Endiris says with a smile. "I’m doing a bigger business. My family has enough to eat and I can afford medicines for my children now.”

But then Felekech, who lives in the small village of Fuchacha with one son and five daughters, changes her expression. “What I really want to do is be able to send them to school,” she explains.

Women like Felekech are changing their own lives — and the lives of their families — In some of southern Ethiopia’s most isolated and impoverished villages. They're taking a courageous, committed stand for the future of their communities.

With the support of Mercy Corps’ PROSPER program, these women have formed peace committees and built meeting halls to help convene once-warring groups and defuse the conflict that has hindered Derashe and Konso districts for many years. They’ve banded together in local health cadres, relying on each other to reach neighbors with basic medical services and lifesaving advice about wellness, sanitation and nutrition. They’ve even started their own businesses through small loans and group savings.

Change is finally coming to this far-flung part of Ethiopia, but one very important thing has so far eluded these hard-working women: a good education for their children and, in particular, their daughters.

But today at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York City — thanks to the support of Melissa Waggener Zorkin, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide and recording artist Angelique Kidjo's Batonga Foundation — Mercy Corps is announcing a commitment to help Ethiopian mothers and their daughters realize that dream. Our newest program in southern Ethiopia, Empowering Ethiopian Girls for Peaceful Change, will give 800 young women from Derashe and Konso districts the chance to attend and graduate from secondary school.

Here in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region — home to an astounding 58 of the country’s 86 distinct ethnic groups — education is a distant dream for most. In Derashe and Konso districts, less than half of children between the ages of 5 and 18 attend school. If a student is fortunate enough to make it to secondary school, chances are that it won’t be a young woman — they make up less than one-third of enrollments at that level.

(Click here to see a photo essay from some of the villages in southern Ethiopia where we work.)

Some of the reasons for that gap are cultural: young women are relied upon to help out with the household chores in rural villages like Fuchacha. It’s not unusual to hear about women having to walk for 10 or more hours a day to find clean water and firewood. In addition, the practice of early marriage is very prevalent in the area, since a young woman’s family still receives a dowry of livestock and other resources before the wedding.

However, it also has much to do with staggering financial realities: many families in this area of southern Ethiopia make less than $80 per year. Annual secondary school fees and supplies routinely add up to more than $125 for each child, making it almost impossible to afford more than the most basic education.

But women like Felakech know, more than ever, the importance of going to school. Through the PROSPER program, they’ve been able to attend business and health trainings that have expanded their horizons and helped them reach long-anticipated goals. They want the same opportunities, and more, for their daughters.

The generosity of Waggener Edstrom Worldwide is funding possibilities for approximately 450 girls and women, while the Batonga Foundation is helping change the lives of an additional 350 girls and women.

The program, which builds on the work that PROSPER is doing in 20,000 households across the area, will offer scholarships to girls and loans to households that commit to enrolling their daughters in school. It will also provide opportunities for job apprenticeships after graduation, as well as an expansion of vocational training that will benefit women of all ages.

Women like Felakech are intent on keeping positive change going in this part of southern Ethiopia — and they know that the best way to make that happen is to invest in their daughters’ education.