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?’’

Empowering Girls – Empowering Humanity: Picture It!

As part of the Guardian interactive article for the 25th anniversary of UN convention on the rights of the child, we asked children across the country what rights were most important to them. Presented with a child-friendly version of the convention, this is what they had to say.

For the International Women’s Day celebration we selectively pictured the girls.

 Interactive Gallery, click on each image to enlarge and read story. 

 

40,000 run celebrating women in Ethiopia: 14th edition Great Ethiopian Run International 10km race colourfully staged 

Great Ethiopian Run held this year with a theme of "Empower Women, Empower a Nation"
Participants of the Great Ethiopian Run wear a t-shirt with the message “Empower Women, Empower a Nation” in Amharic printed on the back. 14th edition Great Ethiopian Run International 10km race colourfully staged in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2014/Sewunet

Partnering with the Great Ethiopian Run, the UN in Ethiopia promotes the importance of women empowerment during the 2014 Great Ethiopian Run in which 40,000 people have participated. The annual running carnival is Africa’s biggest 10km race and it continues to attract more people around the world year after year.

Representing the UN, the UN Resident Coordinator in Ethiopia, Mr Eugene Owusu opened the 2014 race together with H.E. Abadula Gemeda, Speaker of the House of Peoples’ Representatives of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and other high ranking officials. UN Heads of Agencies and staff have also participated in the race.

This year, the lead message of the race “empower women, empower a nation” comes at a critical time when Ethiopia is preparing to report its remarkable achievements in meeting most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Dr Pierre M'pele-Kilebou, WHO Representative and world renown atheletes Haile Gebreselassie and Meseret Defar take group photo with winners of women mobility race.
Dr Pierre M’pele-Kilebou, WHO Representative and world renown atheletes Haile Gebreselassie and Meseret Defar take group photo with winners of women mobility race ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2014/Sewunet

The empowerment of women is a smart economics to achieve better economic growth. Sustainable economic development will only be achieved when the political, social, economic and health status of women is improved. Women empowerment is also about the elimination of all kinds of violence against them, and advancing gender equality and equity.

While it becomes apparent that Ethiopia is on track towards achieving many of the MDGs, those targets that are still lagging behind are the ones to do with women and girls namely, MDG 3 on women’s empowerment and MDG 5 of improving maternal mortality. It is therefore timely to call on everyone’s attention and seek the commitment of all towards the fulfilment of women’s empowerment by protecting their right to have access to opportunities and resources within and outside of their homes.

The UN in Ethiopia supports the Great Ethiopian Run annually not only to promote important social messages but also to raise funds to charities. Under the annual official fundraising campaign “Running for a Cause”, the UN and Great Ethiopian Run target to raise 1.4 million birr this year. The fund will be used for social protection and welfare programmes run by local charities that are selected by the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs. The UN also works with the Great Ethiopian Run to organise regional races in the regional capitals to promote the MDG goals.