My seven-year old daughter recently wrote that when she grows up she hopes to win the "Noble" Peace Prize. Alternatively, she would like to be a professional ice cream taster, which she understands to be a job where you eat ice cream all day using solid gold spoons. Her dreams are lofty, amusing and naively implausible. Yet, perhaps they are in the realm of possibility in consideration of the many opportunities, advantages and resources she has available to help her realize her dreams.
I thought of my daughter when I met a group of girls who were a bit older than she in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They were participating in a UNFPA-sponsored project for adolescent girls in a dusty and dilapidated building in the middle of the central marketplace. These girls were among the "lucky" ones who had left their homes in rural Ethiopia – many fleeing an early marriage – to seek the refuge and opportunity of the capital city. Most girls from the country arrive alone at the Addis central bus station, where the fortunate are able to find menial jobs as child domestic workers and the unfortunate are lured into sex work. Those who heard about the UNFPA project found a community and opportunity in the "safe space" that this center provided. This project provides the girls with an older female mentor in the market who they can turn to for help or guidance as well as providing them life skills and reproductive health education.
I asked these girls what were their dreams and they giggled and looked towards the ground. One girl, her eyes shining, raised her hand and shyly said she hoped to be a "pilot." Another girl hoped to have a stall in the market, a few said they wanted to be mothers, and several repeated that they too wanted to be pilots. I wondered to myself if these girls saw the large Ethiopian Airlines planes leaving Addis every day and thought that this would be a way for them to escape their reality.
As difficult as their lives in the city were, these girls ironically came to Addis from rural Ethiopia seeking a better life. Many of the girls I met were from the Amhara region of Ethiopia, where rates of child marriage are the highest in the world. Half of all girls in this region are married before their 15th birthday. Of these, most never meet their husbands prior to marriage and, according to a recent UNFPA survey, most are subjected to forced sex. Startlingly, most girls interviewed in the survey reported they had not started menstruating when they had sex for the first time within marriage.
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In Bahir Dar, in the center of the Amhara region, UNFPA, in partnership with the Nike Foundation, the Population Council, and the Ethiopian Ministry of Youth, Culture and Sports, is working with married and unmarried adolescent girls through the Berhane Hewan ("Light of Eve") Project, which buys time for hundreds of girls by placing them in educational programs until they are 18, the legal age of marriage in Ethiopia. UNFPA hopes that projects like Berhane Hewan can bring an end to girls fleeing to urban centers where they are vulnerable to abuse.
Designed as a mentoring program, the Berhane Hewan Project brings together married and unmarried girls and young women, ages 10 to 19. Participants take part in informal life skills education led by adult female mentors, or they participate in weekly married girls clubs. Unmarried participants meet five times a week and married participants meet once a week. With school materials provided by the project, girls and young women learn functional literacy, life skills, and reproductive health. It takes six months to complete an educational cycle and most participants are ready to move on to formal schooling after completing the 18-month long program. The project holds monthly community conversations, similar to those the girls have among themselves, where family members can talk about the well-being of their daughters including reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and household management issues. Upon graduation, the girls are celebrated by the community, and each receives a diploma and a pregnant sheep to raise.
When I visited the Berhane Hewan Project, the community or kebele, gathered to tell us about how proud they were of their daughters and wives. Community elders, fathers, mothers, husbands and young adolescent girls all told us movingly about the change that was happening in their community where girls were beginning to be as valued as boys. Although I met fewer aspiring pilots in that rural area than I had in the city, these girls still had dreams that were strong and true. I met would-be medical doctors, teachers, and marathon runners.
Recently, one of my colleagues took a trip to Ethiopia. He told me that his return flight on Ethiopian Airlines was late boarding in Addis because the crew was delayed. As the pilot arrived at the gate, she proffered her apologies to the waiting passengers. My colleague said he smiled and thought of the girls that I had described to him in the market. Perhaps dreams can come true.