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Girls in Afar board the school of life

By Elshadai Negash

An interactive flickr set of students of the Semera Girls Boarding School (
©UNICEF Ethiopia/2013/Negash)

Asia Helem is like any 15-year old girl living in Ethiopia. She spends the majority of her school days attending classes, reading in a school library, preparing for exams, or engaging in extracurricular activities like the environment or drama club. In the evenings and weekends, you find her in the front of the TV screen catching up on an Amharic or Turkish drama shows, while texting the rest of the time about what her favourite actors/actresses have been up to in the latest episode.

But that is pretty much where her similarity with other kids her in Ethiopia ends.

Helem hails from the Afar region in the Northeast corner of Ethiopia closer to the border with Djibouti than the capital Addis Ababa more than 600kms away. Like nearly 60% of girls under 14 (according to the Ethiopian Welfare Monitoring Survey (WMS) 2011) in the region, her genitals were cut in her early days and spent the early parts of her childhood in Bure very close the border with Eritrea and grew up to stories and repercussions of the cross-border conflict which claimed millions of soldiers and civilians on both sides.

But most importantly, Helem was destined for a life of early marriage and conception had she not enrolled in the Semera Girls Boarding School to continue her education. Constructed in 2010 with the support of UNICEF, the facility is where Helem and nearly 300 other young girls call home and school playing a vital role in keeping girls in school.

A chance at a normal childhood? Listen to Kedija Helem sing in her native Afar

“Here, we are normal school girls,” says Helem, who stays in the same dorm room as her younger sister Kedija, 14. “We have a good school with a library, a TV room, a dormitory. It helps to have my sister here too. I am inspired by my teachers. I want to become a teacher when I grow up so that I can help other girls like me stay in school.”

Getting girls to enrol and then stay in primary school is one of the biggest challenges facing social service delivery in the Afar region whose 1.62million strong population is mainly made up of pastoralists who migrate multiple times from location to another every year in search of water and grazing land for their cattle. While they have humbly co-existed with nature by constantly changing locations, efforts to provide basic social services like education to the Afar continues to be a challenge both for regional and federal governments.

“Forty eight per cent of Afar kids are out of school,” says Hailu Workneh, UNICEF Education project officer in the Afar region. “Dropouts are even more prevalent among girls since they are forced into early marriage. That is why UNICEF supported the construction of this school to make sure that the girls continue their education.”

A revolutionary approach, the school was not easily accepted by parents and the larger community when it started. “Some misinformed people spread rumours that the girls would be possessed by the devil if they stay in the school and not get married,” recalls Workneh. “Some parents did not want to be away from their children for longer periods. Everyone including the region’s education bureau, the teachers, and UNICEF staff really worked hard to convince the community to allow the girls to stay in school.”

Getting the girls to stay in school is one thing, but convincing parents to have their kids opt out of early marriage was yet another major challenge. As per tradition in the region, girls like Asia and Kedija are offered to their cousins as wives. Cross-kin husbands, known as Absumas who could be as old as 80 in some cases, would visit their parents to ask them to ‘honour their promise’ and ‘send the girls back where they belong’.

“When the parents refused, they [Absumas] would come directly to school and threaten the teachers and school staff,” says Workneh. “It is an on-going struggle to keep them away. We had a girl named Zahra who was abducted and forced to marry 60 year old man. She run away and is now a very good student at the boarding school. Other girls see this and are inspired. They are serious about their education.”

If stories like those of Zahra are not enough, Asia and Kedija are often reminded of a story of how bad life after early marriage can turn out. “Our elder sister stopped school when she reached grade 5,” says Kedija. “She got married and now lives in Eritrea. She often calls to tell us to stay in school. Life is very difficult for her. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes she made.”

Instead, Kedija gazes intently whenever an episode of Ethiopian drama Sew-le-sew airs every Wednesday. She is in owe of how the leading actresses are liberated enough to express their wants and want-nots. “I want to be an actor or a singer,” says Kedija who then agrees to sing with friends Asia Abdella and Asia Ahmed clapping along. “Marriage and children can come after I fulfill my dreams.” 






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