Behind the camera: What it feels like for a girl


March 13, 2013

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  • Kuye is one of only four girls in her class of 42 boys in southern Ethiopia. Photo: Joni Kabana for Mercy Corps
  • The government has made strides to increase equal access to education for boys and girls, but many family still do not want to send their girls away from home or cannot afford the fees. Photo: Joni Kabana for Mercy Corps
  • Kuye walks over one hour each way to get to school. Before getting the scholarship from Mercy Corps, she had to work to help pay her expenses and was often late for class. Photo: Joni Kabana for Mercy Corps
  • Kuye still has many responsibilities at home — like carrying grains to the market — but she has told her parents the tasks should be equally divided between her and her brother. Photo: Joni Kabana for Mercy Corps
  • Kuye's photo of her mother, Taiko, who wants her daughter to go to university. Photo: Kuye Orxayeto for Mercy Corps
  • Kuye studies hard with the dream of becoming a computer engineer in the future. Photo: Joni Kabana for Mercy Corps

In the back of my mind, a Madonna song is playing. I can’t recall all of the lyrics, but the ending lines play over and over as I watch Kuye in her classroom full of boys:

In this world
Do you know
Do you know
Do you know what it feels like for a girl
What it feels like in this world?

There are 42 students in Kuye’s class, and only four of them are girls.

Kuye is one of very few girls who get to attend high school in this southern area of Ethiopia. This is not due to a lack of desire — they simply have too many duties to perform at home and the costs to attend school are outside of most families’ reach.

Kuye’s mother, Taiko, noticed other girls at the market who were educated and wanted the same for her daughter.

WATCH VIDEO: Kuye's story

Taiko was able to obtain a scholarship and academic support for Kuye from Mercy Corps. Kuye is flying down the path toward her education goals. Her favorite subject is social science, which includes computer programming, and she wants to become an engineer. She has seen women in other countries work in this field, and she believes it is time for Ethiopia to have more female engineers.

But there are people in her village who still think a girl “is not a good girl if she goes outside of her house” to do things outside of her traditional activities. To some, this might seem patriarchal and dismissive of women. But it is more complex than this simple conclusion. Girls are highly regarded in Ethiopia and they are cherished to the point of believing they will (and knowing they can) be stolen, and therefore they are highly protected.

Most women who are not educated end up living a life full of extreme physical burden. They fetch water and firewood, carrying bundles of heavy loads for miles, sometimes days, to help provide for their family. They suffer during childbirth, often losing their baby and living with resulting injuries obtained during days of laboring. Life indeed can be hard in the rural areas of Ethiopia, for both men and women.

Kuye wants to alter this path, and show the world how capable a woman in Ethiopia can be. I give her my camera, and she quickly learns how to operate it, snapping a photo of her mama Taiko and gleefully turning to all of us with excitement about the beautiful image she just captured.

She is a quick study, smart as a tack.

Her hope for her future is to “finish school, get a good test result and go to university, then return” to help her village. I can only imagine what she would do if she attains this goal.

LEARN MORE: Girls are the secret weapon in the war on global poverty

Kuye wants support to be available so she can go to university. She wants a comfortable home in which to lay her head down at night. She wants a husband to love, and children to educate. She also knows more about family planning, and has decided that she would like to have only two children, which will reduce the burden she and her husband will have to feed and educate them.

She cites gender inequality as being an issue in Ethiopia, but she has a simple reason for its existence. She points to the fact that boys, at an early age, begin to carry heavier loads than she can carry. They appear stronger and and more powerful, just because they can pick up heavier objects. Kuye believes that gender equality begins at home, with each parent treating boys and girls equally, and instilling within a young boy’s mind that his sister is as strong as he is.

She realizes that she is learning more than just the traditional subjects at school. Since attending school, Kuye has successfully built the case surrounding her brother’s and her duties at home: hers should be no more nor less than those of her brother’s.

I ask her what her dinnertime is like, and she tells me that if food is present, they eat. If no food is present, they don’t eat. Sometimes Kuye walks home from school with a friend and they search each other’s homes to see which home has food for that evening, and they will share what they find with each other.

A tough life she has. Yet she remains confident and excited about her future.

I ask her where she studies when she is home, and she shows me her bed made of mud and clay. To the left of the bed is a small shelf made from hay and mud and I notice a jar of coconut oil, the type that is used to smooth and condition hair in Ethiopia. She had showed it to me earlier when we arrived at her home, and I understand this is a prized possession. It makes her feel beautiful and a part of the group of students in her class. Like any 18 year old student, she wants to fit in.

And she wants to feel like a girl, all pretty and smelling wonderful as she faces her new world and emerges as a strong and educated woman.

Kuye is a girl. And she is also a pioneer and a fearless leader, bold and defiant, paving the way for others.

Madonna would be proud.

Adapted from blogs originally posted on

More from Joni's trip

Photographer Joni Kabana will speak at our Portland Action Center on Thursday, March 14th. "Ethiopia's Promise: Girls and Education Lead the Way" will bring to life favorite stories and images from her trip to visit Mercy Corps programs in Ethiopia. An exhibit of Joni's photographs from Ethiopia will also be on display thru March 29. More info ▸