Ethiopian youth ambassador: I speak up for education because it gave me a voice

Global Youth Ambassadors

By Selamawit Adugna Bekele, Global Youth Ambassador for A World at School

On June 25 the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) – the world’s only multilateral partnership devoted to improving the provision of quality basic education – held its second replenishment conference in Brussels.

At this conference all GPE partners came together to renew the commitment to give all children (especially in the poorest countries) access to school and quality learning.

To achieve educational outcomes in poverty-stricken and conflict-affected countries, GPE requested donor partners to contribute $3.5billion to support the annual cost of sending 29million children in partner developing countries to school in the next four years. Donor countries, including the United States, made a pledge of about $2.1billion, shy of the target. It was a good step but much more needs to be done.

Leading up to the conference, in my role as a Global Youth Ambassador for A World At School, I went on a tour with the campaign organisation RESULTS Educational Fund, urging US lawmakers and their constituents around the country to support the GPE’s replenishment effort with a two-year pledge of $250million to the fund.

I travelled to cities in Minnesota, Washington, Virginia, New Mexico, Connecticut and Nebraska. With more on the way, my story has been published in Tacoma WeeklyThe Olympian,  Thirdeyemom.comHumanosphere and The News Tribune, and was conveyed to congressional offices and key contacts in the US administration.

In town halls, meetings and conversations with media, volunteers, congressional staffers and ordinary people across American cities, I got a chance to tell my story – why I am speaking up for education and the difference going to school can make for an Ethiopian girl like me.

I told my audiences that I joined the World At School’s movement to get every child into to school and learning because advocating for education is the most effective contribution I can make to address the big picture of development in my country and around the world.

I first started my career as a teacher in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. I was assigned to teach in a school located in a very economically deprived part of the city.

Generally I was only a few years older than my students but sometimes I was the same age. I became very close to them as a teacher and my position as the Gender Desk coordinator gave me the opportunity to listen to the barriers they were facing towards their education.

In this role I was able to rally with other teachers to resolve these issues: from labour exploitation at home to not having a place to sleep, from sexual violence from relatives to harassment from teachers, from parents unable to buy them a book to spending the time out of school at a friend’s place because there is nothing at home – no food, no support, no hope for their education.

I can never forget one of my students, Mahlet (whose name as been changed to protect her). Mahlet was born in Addis Ababa to uneducated parents. Her father died of HIV/AIDS when she was 12 and she barely remembers his face.

A teacher at Menelik School in Ethiopia ©UNESCO/Petterik Wiggers

She knows he was a drunkard who was hardly around and when he was, he was incredibly abusive to her mother. Mahlet’s mother raised her five children by selling alcohol until she became very ill and the burden to feed her children fell on Mahlet’s shoulder.

In order to make money, Mahlet had to drop out to school and start working in a shoe factory making barely enough to survive a day. A classmate told their biology teacher about Mahlet’s situation and he visited her in the factory. He convinced her that she had to come back to school at least for few days. School was her way out of poverty, he insisted. Mahlet started to work the night shift so that she could attend school during the day.

Unfortunately, the burden of all night factory work and school in the morning kept Mahlet getting into trouble with her teachers. She would often sleep during class, fail to do homework, miss exams and be absent more than allowed. At this point the Gender Desk club, which I ran, became aware of her situation and linked her with an organisation that worked towards improving girls’ education. Mahlet got a supporter to help her with school and she quit the factory work to focus on her studies.

Last year, years after my first encounter with Mahlet, I was attending my sister’s university graduation ceremony when someone tapped me on my shoulder, calling me “Teacher Selam”. 

With surprise, I looked back and it was Mahlet. She did it! She not only has a college degree she has also broken out of her deep poverty. Mahlet is no longer a girl at risk of labour exploitation; she’s no longer a girl at risk of gender-based violence, she’s no longer at risk of being victim of early marriage or spending her life with an abusive husband as her mother did.

Mahlet will be married when SHE wants to. She will decide when and how many kids to have. Her children will be raised by a caring, educated mother who will have opportunities to give them an even better life. It’s stories like this that reinforce the power of education to create a bright future – and our campaign is to give all the 58million children around the world who are out of school an opportunity to transform their lives and their communities.

Of those 58million children, 30million are from sub-Saharan Africa. My country, Ethiopia, has the second largest number of out-of-school children in the region, with two million. There are number barriers that continue to deprive children of education in Ethiopia including its affordability, unsafe school environments, weak infrastructure, little cultural value given to education, child labour and marriage, and insufficient number of quality teachers. 

All of these barriers are exacerbated for children with disabilities and girls like Mahlet and I. Ethiopia is one of the only three countries that has over a million girls out of school, following Nigeria (five and a half million) and Pakistan (three million). 

In Ethiopia, one in two girls is married before her 18th birthday and one in five girls is married before the age of 15. As a gender advocate as well, it pains me to hear that 71% of Ethiopian women have been victims of gender-based violence and more than 74% have undergone female genital mutilation. This is just an unacceptable number.

However, for the most of the vulnerable children throughout the world there is a significant solution: EDUCATION. It doesn’t matter where they are from, what their gender is, whether they live with a disability or have fled from conflict – we can make them a citizen of hope with the potential to embark on changing the futures of their countries. 

Donor governments like the US have a critical role to play in making this dream a reality. Since joining the Global Partnership for Education, Ethiopia has raised the number of schools from 11,000 to 36,000; classroom numbers have been increased; the teacher-to-student ratio has decreased; and enrollment has been doubled. Because of this, the Global Education First Initiative has named Ethiopia its champion country for education. Let’s celebrate this and use the momentum to bring more children to school, making education a reality for all.

The only reason I am a voice for others rather than a statistic is because of my education. The only reason I am not a mother of three by age 18 is because of education. The only reason why my parents are different for choosing education over marriage for their girls is because of the education they received.

And the only reason I am an empowered 25-year-young woman from Ethiopia who has the power and the choice to make her own decisions in life is because of education. Every single child in this world also deserves that chance. What are you going to do to help them achieve it?

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