In Ethiopia, better education for a better future

© UNICEF/HQ04-0378/Fiorente
On the Day of the African Child 2004, girls complete child-to-child edcuation survey forms at Tibeb Menged Elementary School in Addis Ababa, assisted by a member of the UNICEF-supported Ethiopian Youth Forum (foreground, wearing UNICEF t-shirt).

By Andrew Heavens

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, 15 June 2006 – As countries around the world commemorate the Day of the African Child tomorrow – the anniversary of a historic child-led protest for access to basic quality education in Soweto, South Africa – the day also marks a milestone for children in Ethiopia.

Two years ago on 16 June, a powerful group of young Ethiopians got together to take a close look at their own country’s education system. Known as the Ethiopian Youth Forum, the group had been lobbying the government to help children, and girls in particular, attend school.

On the Day of the African Child in 2004, they launched a survey to understand which children were not attending school and to find out why.

Movement for access to education

Members of the survey group interviewed 550 students in 20 elementary schools to collect information on behalf of the growing countrywide movement for free access to primary education.

The survey results brought to light the challenges facing girls like Meskerem Geremew, and positive results are already evident. Two years ago, Meskerem was out of school and working to help feed her family. Now, at age 12, she attends classes every day and has ambitions to teach English and travel the world.

© 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.

“I know that it’s important to go to school because a child isn’t supposed to be working, and I have a dream to be somebody in the future," she says.

That tens of thousands of girls like Meskerem are in school today in Ethiopia is largely due to their own grit and determination. But it is also a testimony to the work of the Ethiopian Youth Forum.

Survey highlights obstacles

The survey conducted by the Forum and supported by UNICEF was small in scope but served as a visible reminder that more than 7.8 million Ethiopian children – including 4 million girls – were missing out on education.

The findings about why these children were staying out of the classroom were also startling. The largest single reason for non-attendance (69 per cent) was that parents could not afford school fees. A lack of school materials, the second biggest reason (29 per cent), was related; families simply couldn’t afford to buy basic supplies such as uniforms, books, pens and paper.

Other obstacles identified in the survey ranged from children staying home to do housework (18 per cent) and carry water (8 per cent) to having too far to walk (13 per cent) or no one to take them to school (7 per cent).

‘No development without education’

 “These problems have been around for a long time. But they have often been overlooked,” notes UNICEF Ethiopia Education Officer Maekelech Gidey. “So the survey is a great achievement in itself. We still need to do a lot more follow-up work in the future.”

Two years on, there have been significant advances in the move towards free primary education for all, which the Ethiopian Government has vowed to achieve by 2015 as one of the Millennium Development Goals.

UNICEF is working closely with the World Bank and other partners to make a breakthrough in access to basic quality education with the School Fee Abolition Initiative, and the rights and needs of excluded, marginalized and vulnerable children are at the heart of these efforts.  

“There is no development without education,” said Elleni Muluneh, a founder member of the Ethiopian Youth Forum. “The more we educate children, the more we become developed in the long run. Maybe one day we will manage to get every child in the country behind a school desk.”

Sabine Dolan contributed to this story from New York.




15 June 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Dan Thomas reports on the efforts of the Ethiopian Youth Forum to get children to attend school.
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