|© UNICEF Eritrea/2008/Awet|
|Meriem Abubeker, a 22-year-old widow and mother, reads her poem on the role of educated women during the Sara Communication Festival in Eritrea.|
By Awet Araya and Samuel Yohannes
HASHISHAY, Eritrea, 2 September 2008 – Amid the dry heat and the scorching sun of Hashishay village in the north-west of Eritrea, there lies an oasis of huts made of mud-brick walls and grass-and-bamboo roofs. Meriem Abubeker, a 22-year-old widow, lives in Hashishay with her four-year-old son.
Although her means of livelihood is selling tea, Ms. Abubeker has lofty goals. To achieve those goals, against the odds, she has returned to school with help from a UNICEF-supported initiative.
When a UNICEF and Ministry of Education team visited Ms. Abubeker, she was preparing tea for her customers. She came out of her hut to welcome the team and offered water for their feet, as is custom in the village.
She explained that she dropped out of school and got married at the age of 15 to comply with her parents’ wishes. Her husband – who fought in the armed struggle for Eritrean independence and later became a member of the national defense force – was away for most of their married life. But throughout that time, she felt a strong desire to continue her interrupted education.
Never too late for schooling
Just four years after their marriage and one month after the birth of their son, Ms. Abubeker received news of her husband’s death. Family and friends tried to console her, but she was devastated.
Slowly, she picked up courage and decided to face the challenge of completing her basic education. She re-entered school and continued her studies in grade six at the age of 21.
Early marriage is a common phenomenon in Ms. Abubeker’s locality. Some 46 per cent of girls in Eritrea are married before they turned 18; in rural areas, that number climbs to 60 per cent. Indeed, Ms. Abubeker’s return to school still astonishes many villagers, several of whom disapprove of her actions. But she knows that unless she follows through with her education, she will not be in a position to help her child to succeed in life.
Multimedia tool for social change
Ms. Abubeker, a high achiever, is doing well in school. She is also an active member of the school’s Sara Club, part of the Sara Communication Initiative (SCI) in Eritrea.
A multimedia tool for social change, the initiative uses drama, poems, music, traditional skits and visual arts to educate students on issues such as eradicating female genital mutilation (FGM), preventing HIV/AIDS and supporting people who are living with the disease.
SCI also addresses the disadvantages of early marriage and teenage pregnancy, as well as the importance of girl’s education.
Sara Clubs nationwide
UNICEF launched SCI in 2003, under the leadership of the Ministry of Health. In 2005, the Ministry of Education assumed the task of running the programme in conjunction with other health-related activities in schools.
Since then, SCI has expanded to other parts of the country.
There are now 263 Sara Clubs in junior and high schools across Eritrea. Club activities target students but also extend to local communities and out-of-school children.
‘Doing the right thing’
“When I go out and read my poems and participate in girls’ education and FGM drama as a member of these clubs, I feel empowered in spite of all my difficulties,” said Ms. Abubeker. “I know that I am doing the right thing.”
During last year’s Sara Communication Festival, in which 41 school clubs in the district participated, Ms. Abubeker presented – and won an award for – a poem on the role of educated women in society. She still treasures her memories of the event .
“Thanks to the Sara Club, I am able to share my story with many who are suffering and do not know how to change their fate,” she said with a beaming smile.