Children need peace for education, and education for peace

By Wossen Mulatu

Nyamat Oactoct from Pagak village in Gambella.
“We need peace. If there is conflict, I cannot follow my education properly and there will be no development,” Nyamat. Her five year old younger sister and brother are abducted to a neighbouring South Sudan by the Murle tribe. © UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Mersha

GAMBELLA, Ethiopia,  25 May 2016 – On April 15, hundreds of heavily armed men stormed through Nyamat Oactot’s village of Pagak in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region, stealing cattle, shooting people and kidnapping children.

The 16-year-old girl’s younger brother and sister were taken by raiders believed to be from the Murle tribe from neighbouring South Sudan, and have yet to be recovered. In the aftermath, parents across this part of Gambella have kept their children out of school in fear of further attacks.

“We need peace, if there is conflict, I cannot follow my education properly and there will be no development,” Nyamat said.

Ruey Tut Rue,15, lost his mother and brother and wishes he could bury himself in his studies to keep from thinking about them, but instead he has been frustrated by three weeks of school closure.

“I feel upset and my mind is not focused,” he said. “Reading complicated subjects like biology and chemistry is now helping me to divert my attention from thinking about my mother.”

The attacks have also destroyed school materials making reopening the schools even harder, said Paul Puok Tang, the head of the Lare Woreda (district) education office.

“The dropout rates have also increased,” he said. “Through UNICEF and government  support, we are now trying to rehabilitate the schools and purchase school supplies for the communities that are affected.”

Gambella Region is one of the states in Ethiopia that is part of UNICEF’s Peacebuilding, Education and Advocacy Programme (PBEA), along with Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz and Somali regions.

These four regions suffer from neglect and frequent exposure to man-made and natural disasters such as drought and floods and because of their close proximity to conflict zones. Since 2014, annual disaster and risk response plans have been put in place to help them cope with major disasters.

Ruey Tut Rue, 15, and 7th grade student, Pagak village in Gambella.
Ruey Tut Rue, 15, and 7th grade student did not go to school for three weeks due to the recent abduction of large numbers of children in the Gambella Region of Ethiopia by Murle pastoralists from South Sudan ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Mersha

UNICEF has enlisted the support of the African Centre for Disaster Risk Management to come up with disaster and risk response plans at 31 schools in Gambella and 13 schools in Benishangul-Gumuz to develop the capacity of schools and communities to respond to disasters.

In the case of an attack like the recent cattle raid, villagers are taught to know when the raids come and what to do with their children during that period, said Omod Abela, Process Owner of Planning and Resource Mobilisation in Gog Woreda, Punido Kebele (sub-district),.

“We know that it is a seasonal occurrence – they come between March and May following their cattle and we teach communities not to send their children to herd cattle during this season, but to keep them at home and study,” he said. “Also, we teach parents that children should not play in isolation but surrounded by adult members of the community.”

PBEA seeks to strengthen resilience, social cohesion and peacebuilding in the four regions through strengthened policies and practices in education.

In Gambella, over 1,200 educational officials have been trained to promote peace and social cohesion within the region through disaster planning, peacebuilding, combatting school-related gender-based violence and promote child-friendly schooling.

“Parents and children need to understand the value of education,” explained Tok Bel from Lare Woreda Education Office. “Out of school children are more prone to be involved in conflict situations. Even during the recent Murle attack, most lives that were saved were those of children who were attending classes when the incident happened. Education saves lives.”

Ethiopia started the implementation of the PBEA in October 2012 with the Federal Ministry of Education and the four regional education bureaus.

The programme, which ends in 2016, is integrated across UNICEF’s US$60 million Learning and Development Programme and is a global initiative funded by the Government of the Netherlands.

“Where there is peace, education will go well. Without knowledge and education, there are no doctors and without doctors, many people will die,” said Gatiat Wal Rik, 15, a student from Bulimkum Primary School.

The power of education for building peace in Africa

infographicADDIS ABABA/NAIROBI/DAKAR, 1st JUNE 2016 – Ensuring equitable access to education is key in addressing the root causes of conflict and instability in Africa, stakeholders said today ahead of the Pan-African Symposium on Education, Resilience and Social Cohesion, at the United Nations Conference Centre in Addis Ababa.

The three-day event shares evidence and best practices from UNICEF’s Peacebuilding, Education and Advocacy Programme (PBEA), and the Inter-Country Quality Node (ICQN) on Peace Education, established by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA). In doing so, the Symposium will seek to assess how inclusive, equitable and innovative education policy and programmes can contribute to sustainable peace and development across the continent. Currently, three out of 10 children in Africa are living in conflict-affected settings and exposed to numerous risks.  

“The capacity of education to support children develop and thrive is well documented, however we now also know that education can prevent and reduce the impacts of conflict,” said UNICEF’s Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Leila Gharagozloo-Pakkala. “If the right policies and interventions are in place, together with financial investment, education can be a driving force in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.”

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 36 out of 45 countries are at medium or high risk of experiencing manmade disasters, the highest rate globally. Moreover, at least 327 million children in Sub-Saharan Africa live in fragile contexts and the majority of the estimated 29 million primary school aged children who are out of school are primarily found in fragile settings and are particularly at risk or threatened by conflict.

“We need to reorient Africa’s education and training systems to meet the knowledge, competencies, skills, innovation and creativity required to nurture the continent’s core values,” said Dr Martial de Paul Ikounga, African Union Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology. “We will then promote sustainable development at the national, sub-regional and continental levels.”

The African Union Commission, under the Agenda 2063 “The Africa We Want”, envisions that by 2020 all guns will be silent and a culture of peace and tolerance would be nurtured in Africa´s children and youth through peace.”      

Oley Dibba-Wadda, the Executive Secretary of ADEA, sees education as “a key tool against all kinds of violence” and strongly appeals to African governments to “endorse and develop integrated, peaceful, inclusive approaches and strategies that support the implementation of a comprehensive program on non-violence, tolerance and peace, especially for the young generation.” 

The high-level event in Addis Ababa, which is being attended by Ministers of Education from 16 African countries, including conflict-torn states, will close with concrete recommendations on how to strengthen education sector policy and programmes in Africa to address the risks faced by children and to support sustainable peace and development across Africa. The symposium will also provide evidence to inform both donor and public funding strategies and investment priorities.

“Education can play both a protective and preventative role. In doing this, education’s power is transformative and serves as a peace dividend, reducing inequities and grievances between groups and strengthening social cohesion” said the Ethiopian Minister of Education, Ato Shiferaw Shigute.

The symposium is co-organized by the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education, UNICEF, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), and the Inter-Country Quality Node (ICQN) on Peace Education.

In drought-stricken regions, children search for water and a lifeline for their hopes

In drought-stricken regions of SNNPR, children travel for hours to collect water for household needs.
In drought-stricken regions of SNNPR, children travel for hours to collect water for household needs ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Ayene

HALABA SPECIAL WOREDA & MAREKO WOREDA, SNNPR, 22 March 2016 – In the northern part of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR) of Ethiopia, bright yellow jerry cans are everywhere: on main roads and dirt roads, carried by hand or piled high on donkey carts being led on long journeys. Whatever the method, the goal is the same: water.

In SNNPR, 73 out of the total 136 rural woredas (districts) are grappling with water scarcity. Out of those, 45 are severely affected. In many of these woredas, water scarcity is an old problem, made much, much worse by the ongoing drought, which is the worst this country has experienced in decades. The result of a double blow of climate change and the El Niño phenomenon, the drought has led to food shortages and threats to livelihoods and survival. 

When there is no water, education takes a backseat

Wogbela, 15, travels to a neighbouring area for water, returning home the next day
Wogbela, 15, travels to a neighbouring area for water, returning home the next day. “I am late to school every day,” he says ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Ayene

Lack of water affects everything: food, health, education and children’s futures. In Washe Faka Primary School, located in Washe Faka Kebele (sub-district), Mareko Woreda of SNNPR, approximately 20 students have left school in search of work to support families whose livelihoods have been turned upside down by the drought. The children who remain in school are struggling.

“Students are coming to school with empty stomachs and leaving early because they can’t focus,” says Selfa Doloko, the school principal.

Fifth-grader Wogbela, 15, is struggling too. Every day after school, he travels hours to a water point in a neighbouring area. Because of the distance from his home, he has to stay overnight at a relative’s house. There are closer water points, but the long lines often mean hours of waiting.

“I used to go every other day, but the drought has dried up the ponds here, so I have to get water for the livestock in addition to water for the family,” he says.

In the morning, Wogbela travels home with his supply of water. He is tired by the time he gets home, but has to rush to school. “I am late to school every day,” he says, worried. Education is important to him, but it takes a backseat when there is no water.

Relief in sight

HALABA WOREDA, SNNPR – 24 JANUARY 2016
Munira, 13, is a student at Asore Primary School, located 30 metres away from a new UNICEF-supported water point. “It is much easier now. We can drink and wash easily,” she says. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Ayene

This is the story of so many children here, but thankfully for some, there is finally relief in sight.

For the students of Asore Primary School in Halaba Woreda, a new UNICEF-supported water point approximately 30 metres away means a new shot at learning. Students like Munira, 13, an eighth-grader at the school, can finally breathe a sigh of relief. “I used to travel two to three hours a day to fetch water. The wait at the water point was even longer. Sometimes the taps did not work and I would have to spend the whole day there and go home the next day. It was so tiring and a waste of time,” she says, glad that clean water is now just a short walk away.

Abdusamad, 16, another eighth-grader at the school, adds, “Some students had to drop out of school because they had to spend so much time collecting water. I’m more confident now that I can finish my studies and I want to help bring the students who dropped out back to school.”

As part of the drought emergency response, UNICEF, as the WASH cluster lead, is supporting the Government of Ethiopia and other partners in the rehabilitation, maintenance and construction of new water supply systems, provision of water purification and treatment chemicals, scaling up of water trucking activities, and provision of  sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools. UNICEF is also exploring innovative ways to use satellites to detect deep groundwater for large scale, multiple-village water supply systems.

With 5.8 million people around the country in need of access to safe drinking water, UNICEF and partners are racing against the clock to provide urgent help.

For children like Wogbela, it cannot come soon enough. “I hope things change soon,” says Wogbela, “so that I can get back to learning.”

The Teenage Parliamentarian

By Bethlehem Kiros

Ubah Jemal, 15, makes a call before a meeting of the Girls Club in Jigjiga, Somali Region, Ethiopia
Ubah Jemal, 15, makes a call before a meeting of the Girls Club in Jigjiga, Somali Region, Ethiopia, 24 January 2015. Ubah is the vice president of the Somali Region Children’s Parliament, a position that enabled her to engage and empower girls in Jigjiga town, where she lives. In addition to heading the Girls Club in her own high school, she is responsible for setting up similar clubs in all the primary schools of her town. Ubah wants to pursue the field of medicine while continuing to serve in leadership position. “I want to become a doctor because it grants the opportunity to touch peoples’ lives directly, but ultimately, I want to become a leader, preferably a president,” she says. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Bindra

SOMALI REGION, 24 January 2014 – “Dreams won’t cost you a thing, so dream,’’ cheerfully exclaimed Ubah Jemal, as she concluded delivering one of her weekly pep talks to the Girls Club members from all the primary schools in Jigjiga town, the capital of the Somali region. A 12th grader at the Jigjiga Senior Secondary and Preparatory School, 15 years old Ubah is well known among female primary and high school students in Jigjiga for her inspirational speeches and her ability to organise and lead. Even at her childhood, she was made to skip third and fourth grade because of her intelligence. Spotted first by the Regional government officials while presenting a speech as a representative of her School Parliament, Ubah was often invited to attend meetings that were organised by the Regional Bureau of Women, Children and Youth Affairs (BOWCYA). Then three years ago, upon the formation of the Somali Region Children’s Parliament, she was elected as vice president, acquiring a role that enabled her to spread her wings beyond her own high school. As part of the global initiative to promote the rights and roles of children in the society, children parliaments are formed in each of the nine regional states and the two city administrations in Ethiopia. Picked from various schools across the nation, Ubah and her fellow appointees serve as mouthpieces of all under 18 children throughout the country.

Leadership with results

Ubah Jemal, 15, applies makeup before a meeting of the Girls Club in Jigjiga Right after she assumed her position as vice-president, she was given the role to head the Girls Club in her school that was established that same year, when she was at the 9th grade. The club absorbed other existing clubs like the anti FGM (Female genital mutilation) to address more issues of girls in the region, including FGM. “We wanted it to be a safe place where we can talk freely about all our issues as girls and learn from each other,’’ says Ubah. Besides offering the opportunity of growth through continued discussions, Ubah and her group mates opted for practical ways to help girls, after she had an eye-opening encounter with a classmate. “A girl who was sitting next to me was very stressed because her period suddenly came and she couldn’t leave the room fearing that the teacher and the students will see her cloth,’’ she recalls, ‘’and she was also very hesitant to tell me because apparently, it is a taboo to talk about such things.’’ She adds that an idea came to her right there to create a space in school where girls can access the proper sanitation materials, clean and freshen up, and even take painkiller pills and nap if they feel sick. Consequently, the Girls Club called a meeting of all female students in the school to raise money, and eventually made this idea a reality. “Once they saw that we made it possible, BOWCYA started supporting us and now UNICEF provides the sanitation supplies regularly,’’ says Ubah.

She believes that the availability of the girls’ room has contributed to an increase in attendance of girl students, since some girls have the tendency of not showing up to school, sometimes for a whole week, during their menstruation period due to their inability to afford sanitation pads or painful cramps. According to a study conducted by Water Aid, 51 per cent of girls in Ethiopia miss up to four school days every month and 39 per cent show reduced performance, when they are on their periods. The severe cramps are especially common among girls who went through Pharaonic circumcision. Dubbed as the most severe form of FGM, Pharaonic circumcision–which refers to the removal of all external genitalia and then the sewing of the remaining parts of outer lips, only leaving a small whole for urine and menstrual flow–-was highly prevalent in the Somali region until its decrease in the last five years through the organised efforts of the local community, religious leaders and the government.

Passing the torch

A member of a high school Girls Club waits by the door for their meeting to start in Jigjiga After making sure that the same model of Girls’ Club is duplicated in the only other high school in Jigjiga town, Ubah spearheaded the formation of Girl Clubs in elementary schools. “I thought it would be beneficial if younger girls also got the chance to organise so I approached the BoWCYA head who regarded it as a great idea,’’ she recounts. In less than a week, Ubah met with the principals of all the four primary schools in Jigjiga town and established four Girl Clubs, each with 30 members. She now meets with them on weekly basis where they get to report and plan their activities, while receiving constant encouragement from her.

According to Ubah, the girls keep watchful eye in their communities and offer assistance when they are needed. So far, they have stopped planned circumcisions, supported indigent children with school materials, and even found foster parents for few orphaned students. Ubah is confident that there will be many girls who are now empowered enough to take over her responsibilities when she goes to university, which is in less than eight months. Her plan is to study medicine either at the Addis Ababa University or go abroad, if she gets a scholarship. “I want to become a doctor because it grants the opportunity to touch peoples’ lives directly, but ultimately, I want to become a leader, preferably a president,’’ she laughs. “Who can charge me from dreaming?’’

Translate commitments to invest in children into action, UNICEF urges leaders at Financing for Development Conference

Rahmat and her baby Ne'ema Abdu-Dessie Zurie Woreda
Rahmat and her baby Ne’ema Abdu-Dessie Zurie Woreda © UNICEF Ethiopia/2013/Tsegaye

NEW YORK/ADDIS ABABA, 15 July 2015 – At the close of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, UNICEF challenges the international community to turn its promises to invest in children and young people into concrete action that reduces inequities and provides every child with a fair chance in life.

UNICEF welcomes the Addis Ababa Conference’s recognition that investing in children and young people is “critical to achieving inclusive, equitable and sustainable development”. This represents a significant shift away from the perception of children as passive recipients of social spending towards viewing them as agents of future growth and development. 

UNICEF also supports the Conference’s acknowledgement of the “vital importance of promoting and protecting the rights of all children, and ensuring that no child is left behind,” believing that this provides a strong basis for final negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Yoka Brandt, Deputy Executive Director UNICEF, makes a remark at the Child Protection: Sustaining Investments in Childhood side event
Yoka Brandt, Deputy Executive Director UNICEF, makes a remark at the Child Protection: Sustaining Investments in Childhood side event at FFD3 ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Ayene

“Here in Addis Ababa member states have agreed on a global roadmap for development finance that recognises in much stronger words than previous agreements that investing in children is central to inclusive and sustainable growth,” said Yoka Brandt, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director. “The Addis Ababa Action Agenda puts a strong emphasis on equity, on reaching the most vulnerable. Combined with the Sustainable Development Goals, which also give clear priority to the interests of children and equity, we now have a robust, new global foundation for making the world fit for children.”

However, UNICEF warns against complacency and calls upon the international community to build on the commitments made in Addis Ababa by:

  • Prioritising investments in basic universal services such as education, social safety nets, health care, immunisation, water and sanitation and child protection;
  • Identifying and targeting groups and communities with the greatest needs;
  • Progressively mobilising additional resources to address financing gaps in underfunded SDG priority areas with the greatest impacts for children such as nutrition, children protection and early childhood development;
  • Improving reporting on child-related spending including documenting how much funding goes to groups or areas with greater incidences of child deprivation.

“We must make sure that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children are at the heart of the SDGs, and at the heart of how we go about mobilising the financing that is needed to achieve these goals,” Brandt said. “We have a unique opportunity to translate commitments and promise and into action. To turn rhetoric into practical results for all children.”

Investing in learning from a child’s very earliest days critical to have a good start in life – Hannah Godefa

(L-R) UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, Hannah Godefa, UNICEF national Ambassador to Ethiopia and Nobel Laureate Economist Professor James Heckman

Early childhood care and education is the first stage of lifelong learning and development. It lays the necessary foundation for building higher-level cognitive and non-cognitive skills and has the potential of breaking down inequity in learning from the beginning by leveraging the tremendous capacity of early brain development and function. Most importantly, it can have a serious impact on the education of adolescent girls later on in life.

That’s why I was honoured to share a panel on the importance of early childhood education and care with UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake and Nobel Laureate Economist Professor James Heckman at the World Education Forum from May 19-22 in Incheon, South Korea. For me, learning started when I was a baby. I know this because I know my parents – and education has always been their number one priority.

Even before I was old enough for kindergarten, my father and I frequently went to the library together to read. My parents were still recent immigrants in Canada, where we live. At the library, there were literacy and support programmes. I remember that I loved the maps and photographs in geography books – especially pop up books with pieces I could touch.

My parents encouraged my interest and they sacrificed a lot so I would have a good education. I have no doubt that these early experiences formed my interest in books and the world and set me on my current path as a student and an advocate for education.

Wash Program, Shebedino Woreda, AwassaI know from my own journey that there is a direct connection between what a child learns early in life and what happens later. As an advocate for adolescent girls, I have travelled a lot. I have met girls my age and younger who are mothers. For very young mothers, it is incredibly important that they have knowledge, resources, programmes and support to help them provide their children with a good start in life. If we support these young mothers, we are also providing their babies with a fair chance to grow into young people and adults who can make the world a better place.

I think it is up to youth advocates like me – advocates who see the benefits of a strong early start in life – to speak about the issue.

Unfortunately, one of the reasons we are discussing this topic today is because not all children have access to early learning and care. Most of the children who go to pre-primary school live in more wealthy countries. In low-income countries, pre-primary enrollment ratios are only 19 per cent.These disparities in early childhood learning between wealthy and poor are not fair.

Over time, they also compound and the children who miss out early face ever greater challenges as they get older. Investing in learning from a child’s very earliest days is one of the best ways we have to make sure that all children – no matter where they live or who their parents are – have a good start in life.

Many of the individuals gathered at the World Education Forum for important discussions about investment in education and the Sustainable Development Goals. I came to the Forum to ask all to start early – to start investing and prioritizing learning for all children from the very earliest days of their lives. I can tell you from my personal experience: Those very first learning experiences make all the difference – they can change a girl’s life.

Runaway Child Bride on a New Beginning

By Bethlehem Kiros

Girls socialize in their dorm rooms at the Semera Girl’s Boarding School
Girls socialize in their dorm rooms at the Semera Girl’s Boarding School, a school that serves as a safe haven for many girls that escape their home villages after being forced to marry at a young age, in Semera, Afar Region, Ethiopia, 8 January 2015. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Bindra

AFAR Region, 8 January 2015 – At the Semera Girls’ Boarding School, Zahara Abdu is granted a new lease on life. Three years ago, at the age of 13, she was forced to marry a man who is decades older than her. “I was his third wife, and he has children that are older than me,” says Zahara. Refusing to take others’ choice for her life, she chose to flee and, fortunately wound up at the boarding school where she is now attending the 7th grade.

Next to the Amhara region, Afar has the highest rate of child marriage in Ethiopia. One of the reasons for this is the availability of few schools especially after finishing the Alternative Basic Education (ABE) which runs from grade 1-4 in their locality which limits girls’ option and directly justifies early marriage as the only viable. This fact is well entwined with an aged Afari tradition known as absuma which entitles a man full right to marry his cousin, specifically the daughter of his paternal aunt. Zahara was promised to several cousins already, in the name of absuma, but none of them took advantage of this traditional practice. “They are all educated which is probably why they didn’t demand to marry me,’’ explains Zahara.

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures

However, this did not stop Zahara’s father from finding her another man. She was not aware of the arrangement until the last minute and was attending 4th grade in her local ABE. When she found out, she tried to reason with her father who only turned a deaf ear to her plea. Distraught and out of options, Zahara followed her instincts and ran away at the night of her wedding. She sought refuge among her friends where she learned about the possibility of escaping to the Semera Boarding School. “There are three girls in my neighborhood who go to the school and they told me that the administration welcomes girls who are in a situation like mine,’’ she recounts. “They also promised to take me with them when their school break ends.’’

After twenty-seven days of hiding, her family found her in one of her friend’s house and dragged her back to her husband’s village, where his other two wives and children also live. Regarding what happened next, she says, “I knew what would await me, so I ran away again that very night.’’ To minimize the risk of being caught again, this time, she chose to stay out in the wilderness, surviving on the food and water her friends brought her. In the meantime, her friends were secretly raising money from other girls in the village for her trip to Semera, the capital of the region. Zahara recalls that her older sisters, who were both married at the time, were also part of the plan of her escape.

A Safe Haven

Zahara Abdu, 17, poses for a photo in her dorm at the UNICEF-supported Semera Girl’s Boarding School
Zahara Abdu, 17, poses for a photo in her dorm at the UNICEF-supported Semera Girl’s Boarding School, a school that serves as a safe haven for many girls that escape their home villages after being forced to marry at a young age, in Semera, Afar Region, Ethiopia, 8 January 2015. Zahara escaped from her village after her forced Absuma marriage to her cousin. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Bindra

After quite an ordeal of sleeping in the open desert, Zahara joined her friends on their trip back to school. The school administration referred her case to the regional Bureau of Women, Children and Youth Affairs (BoWCYA) and a decision was reached immediately to admit her to the school. Zahara is among the several girls in Semera Boarding School who have run away from their coerced marriages, often to men that are significantly older than them. In order to make education accessible to orphan or vulnerable girls from remote pastoralist communities, the school was built in 2009 by the regional government with the support of UNICEF. It currently provides education from grades 5 through 8 and mainly enrolls graduates of ABE, which is the most common form of education in pastoralist communities of Ethiopia.

Zahara says that she went to the extent of defying her father’s will and putting herself through considerable hardship during her escape, because it was simply unthinkable for her to forgo her education. “I know my potential, and I can’t let anyone ruin the future which I believe I can have,’’ she declares. She adds that the school has become an ideal place for her to tap into that potential as she can focus entirely on her studies without worrying about marriage or household responsibilities. ‘’All we have to do here is maintain our personal hygiene and clean our rooms, which leaves us with ample time for our school work,’’ she explains. Consequently, Zahara managed to complete the 5th and 6th grades at the top of her class and hopes to maintain this status for the years to come.

Facing Social Denigration

Girls play at the Semera Girl’s Boarding School
Girls play at the Semera Girl’s Boarding School, a school that serves as a safe haven for many girls that escape their home villages after being forced to marry at a young age, in Semera, Afar Region, Ethiopia, 8 January 2015. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Bindra

In the last two and half years, Zahara visited her family twice, during her school breaks, and her relationship with them is now restored. On her first visit, she was accompanied by a BoWCYA representative who explained to her father about the importance of letting her go to school while gently laying out the legal repercussions for arranging underage marriage. “In the presence of the BoWCYA representative, my father gave his word that he will not force me to go back to my so-called husband,’’ states Zahara. Though she is safe, she fears that her younger sister who recently turned 13 might be given away soon. “My sister is really worried, so if it comes to that, I guess I’ll have to notify the authorities since my family does not listen to me,’’ she says with frustration. According to her, their society generally considers girls in her position – who defy social norms for the sake of education – as bad influences on other girls. “Uneducated people like my father just don’t see the worth of a girl’s education,’’ she complains. ‘’They belittle us saying that the reason we insist on going to school is to have the freedom to be with boys.’’

Zahara strongly believes that the only way she and her friends can gain the respect of their families and communities is if they prove themselves as successful adults. “I think if we finish school, get jobs and start giving back to them, they’ll start to recognize that we have something valuable to offer, besides giving birth to children,’’ she concludes.