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Closing the gender gap: An Ethiopian girl shines shoes to pay for school

© UNICEF/ HQ06-0298/Andrew Heavens
Meskerem Geremew, 12 (back to camera), speaks to representatives of the Ethiopian Youth Forum in her classroom at the Tebeb Mengel Primary School in Addis Ababa.

By Andrew Heavens

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, 8 June 2006 – Meskerem Geremew knew she had to get an education. So the 12-year-old girl from Ethiopia’s bustling capital, Addis Ababa, decided to take action.

First she got hold of some rags and a cracked water container and set herself up as one of the city’s only shoeshine girls, holding her own against hundreds of competing shoeshine boys. Then she started saving, splitting her earnings between her mother and a special school-savings pot.

On weekends and evenings after classes, Meskerem shines shoes for up to 1 birr (11 cents) a pair. On a good day, she can earn as much as 10 birr ($1.15). Half of that goes to buy food and other provisions for her family. The rest of her earnings are put toward school fees and related costs – 15 birr a month, or 154 birr for the whole year.

After months of elbow grease, she collected enough to start paying her own way through primary school, while continuing to provide food for her mother and four younger siblings.

© UNICEF/ HQ06-0298/Andrew Heavens
Meskerem pays for her own school fees and materials by shining shoes, a job typically done by boys, on weekends and evenings after class.

Today, Meskerem, spends the bulk of her weekdays sitting at a desk at Tebeb Mengel Primary School in the heart of the city, getting the lessons she paid for with her own money and using the exercise books and pens she bought through her own hard work.

“I had to go to school because I want to get knowledge,” said Meskerem. “Knowledge is how you become somebody.”

Enrolment on the rise

The participation of girls in school is still low in Ethiopia, with less than half of primary school-age girls enrolled. Yet there are signs that progress is starting to accelerate. Preliminary estimates indicate a sharp rise in net primary school enrolment in the past year, coupled with a sharp decrease in the gender parity gap.

Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go. After Somalia, Ethiopia requires the second-highest average annual rate of increase in net enrolment and attendance in Eastern and Southern Africa if it is to meet the Millennium Development Goal of gender parity in primary education by 2015.

© UNICEF/ HQ06-0298/Andrew Heavens
Meskerem sits in her classroom in Tebeb Mengel Primary School.

Much of the rise in enrolment in Ethiopia is the result of the government’s growing commitment to providing universal free primary education, according to UNICEF Ethiopia’s Education Project Officer, Maekelech Gidey.

“Another factor has been a host of UNICEF-backed advocacy programmes encouraging girls to go to school,” she added. “There have been radio shows, huge roadside posters, UNICEF’s ‘Go Girls’ programme, after-school tutorial sessions and incentives offered to schools and districts that increase girls’ enrolment.”

Long-term effects of educating girls

UNICEF Representative in Ethiopia Björn Ljungqvist said that increasing the number of girls in school was one of the organization’s main priorities in the country.

“The reason we are so focused on this is that educating girls provides a myriad of benefits, not only for girls themselves, but also for their current and future families, and for societies at large,” said Mr. Ljungqvist. “The education of girls contributes to higher economic productivity, lower infant mortality and morbidity, lower fertility rates, and the attainment of longer life expectancy for both men and women.

“Furthermore, there is a greater likelihood that the children of educated girls will themselves be educated,” he added.

While Meskerem’s particular story is quite exceptional, her drive and determination to get an education in the face of huge obstacles ranging from poverty to gender expectations is typical of a new generation of Ethiopian girls. In the long term, Meskerem dreams of becoming a teacher and earning enough to look after her family.




7 June 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Dan Thomas reports from Addis Ababa on 12-year-old Meskerem
Geremew's efforts to get an education. Filmed by Efrata Belachew and edited by Rachel Warden.
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