Focus on Ethiopia’s Social Service Workforce and a Local Hero

Abdulfatah Mohamed Ali is a Bajaj taxi driver by night and a community social worker by day.

By Melissa Mahama
Abdulfatah Mohamed Ali,    Social Worker, Bambassi Bureau of Women Children and Youth​
UNICEF Ethiopia/2019/NahomTesfaye
18 March 2020

Abdulfatah is a social worker for the Bureau of Women and Children’s Affairs and​ is greeted by waves and smiles wherever he goes. He is a familiar figure on his red motorbike, visiting children and families in the villages surrounding Bambassi town, Benshangul-gumuz region. Fighting for the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised has not always been easy or made him popular. But Abdulfatah realised he had a role to play ten years ago, when his sister-in-law had nowhere else to turn.​

​With a painful and bloated stomach, rumours spread through her community that she had been possessed. People were scared and she was forced into isolation. Abdulfatah was shocked when he saw how his sister-in-law was living and took her to hospital.​ Medical staff told her that she was in the final stages of ovarian cancer. Soon after, she died. Abdulfatah was sad that the lack of information made her illness far more frightening than it already was.​

“Too many women and girls suffer because they don’t have information or support. As a social worker, I can help.”​

​For the last eight years, in his social work role, Abdulfatah has been a pioneering voice against harmful practices that were previously an accepted part of life in the community – calling for an end to female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage and other forms of violence against women and children.​ Recalling the time when a girl came to his office to cancel her own marriage, Abdulfatah smiles.​

​“The girl said that she was too young to marry and wanted to continue her education.”​ When asked how he gains the trust of those at risk, Abduflatah replies,​ “People see how I support women who have been pushed out of society – and begin to trust me.”​

​Abdulfatah describes a woman who developed an obstetric fistula after a difficult labour. She had been left incontinent and her husband asked her to move out of the family home and into a shed. Food was passed to her with a rope to avoid contact. She felt ashamed and isolated.​ As her social worker, Abdulfata referred her to Assosa hospital where she received repair surgery. Within six months she had returned to her previous life, healthy.​

​Abdulfatah works with health extension workers to raise awareness of the problems of an untreated fistula and how it can be avoided by delaying the age of first pregnancy and stopping female genital mutilation. Now this woman, and others like her, tell their stories and speak out as agents of change.​ And there has been change. Abdulfatah describes how a girl undergoing FGM was once a time for a big family celebration. Now, the procedure is taboo and carried out in secret.​

 ​“This is progress – a step towards a new social norm.”​

​When FGM was criminalised, people used to complain that the government was “against the culture”. Now, local people joke: “Are you still talking about FGM? We stopped that a long time ago.”​ Unlike the country as a whole, where FGM prevalence is 65 per cent for women aged 15–491, many kebeles in Bambassi woreda, are giving up the practice. Traditional and religious leaders, health workers, teachers – are all promoting the same message. But Abdulfatah stresses the importance of refresher training for those who can reach the hearts and minds of the community:​ “To keep people motivated we need to keep talking about FGM and the harm that it causes.” ​

Abdulfatah speaks with the Community Care Coalition in Garabechi Welega
UNICEF Ethiopia/2019/NahomTesfaye
Abdulfatah speaks with the Community Care Coalition in Garabechi Welega

As well as awareness-raising and training, Abdulfatah believes in direct action:​ “When you are determined to prevent something you have to be creative!”​

 ​Abdulfatah asked the community, “Who are the women practising FGM?” People were afraid to speak out. So, Abdulfatah worked with the school, asking children to anonymously put the names of those women into a box.​ “It was great to involve children – they were part of the prevention and the solution.”​

 ​FGM, and also scarification (the practice of cutting the skin to make scars), is traditionally practised in the region by older women for a fee. Abdulfatah found a way to financially compensate these women for lost income. He acknowledges that this is not the whole solution, but was a simple way to reduce the chance that a girl may be harmed for a lifetime.​ Abdulfatah speaks about how girls have more rights and freedom now. More girls from the villages are going to highschool. But along with these positive changes, come risks, such as long journeys to school. Girls are targeted by older men, given gifts and some start relationships. Girls are exploited, suffer harassment and sexual violence.​

 ​Abdulfatah advises girls to travel in groups. He is working with schools – to raise the issues at school clubs and child parliaments. He is also making sure that schools have child protection policies in place including a code of conduct for teachers.​

 ​“All children should feel safe in school.”​

 ​Abdulfatah describes the high unmet need for youth-friendly family planning services and safe abortion care. Unmarried girls are afraid of the stigma attached to asking for family planning – instead, risking pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and unsafe abortion.​ Until attitudes change and in the absence of family planning services, Abdulfatah encourages girls to delay sex until they have finished their education.​

Through these practical initiatives and support, Abdulfatah has earned the trust of the community as someone committed to protecting children and their families. ​A social worker’s salary in Ethiopia is minimal. Abdulfatah supplements his income by driving a Bajaj taxi at night. He concludes: ​

“My salary is small – but the changes I see are a good reward.”​

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With children making up 48 per cent of the population of Ethiopia, protecting children through a strong social service workforce for child protection is essential for the well-being of a generation, and the growth and development of the country.​ UNICEF is working with the Government of Ethiopia to strengthen child protection systems. This includes increasing the number and quality of servive of social workers, community service workers and para-professionals and providing a country-wide social service workforce and structure to reach all children across Ethiopia.​