The power of female teachers and role models in Ethiopia’s pastoralist communities

Asyia Adam, 20, values her education over child marriage and inspires her female students, younger sisters, and girls in the community to put education first.

Amanda Westfall
Asyia and her students
©UNICEF Ethiopia/2018/Westfall
16 November 2018

On 30 January, Asyia Adam, 20, values her education over child marriage and inspires her female students, younger sisters, and girls in the community to put education first. She is a prime example to why investing in female teachers can build a new generation of leaders in Ethiopia.

The Afar region of Ethiopia is one of the harshest and hottest locations in the world, holding the record high average temperature for an inhabited location, consistently reaching over 41°C (105°F). It is also a region that is hardest hit by droughts, where in 2015 half a million people were left without any water supply. When access to essential resources diminishes as each dry season hits, and one must migrate to find food and water, it takes the strongest mold of humans to survive.

And for females, where 91 per cent suffer from female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C),  66 per cent are married as children,  and only 2.1 per cent complete their primary education,  it takes an even stronger mold to survive, thrive, stay in school, complete school, and find a paying job as an adult. 

Asyia Adam, now 20, was married to an older man that her parents selected when she was 16 (Grade 8). Her new husband only completed Grade 8 and did not approve of Asyia having a higher education than him.

But Asyia witnessed too many girls dropping out of school because of marriage and would not have this for herself; her education was far too important. It took some time to convince her husband and her parents, but they eventually agreed to support her aspirations. She had to travel 220 km away to attend and finish secondary school in Logyia town, and then went on to gain a basic teaching degree at the teacher’s college, an education level that only 1.5 per cent of Afari girls reach. 

Since Asyia and her husband envisioned different futures for her, a divorce was necessary. The divorce took some time to process and was only finalized last year.

Investing in quality teachers

Asyia beat the odds and is now a paid pre-primary teacher for the Government’s “O” class (kindergarten) at Alelo School for pastoralist children in Teru woreda (district), where she teaches and inspires 60 beautiful children daily.

When the Government first introduced the “O” class to pastoralist communities it was difficult to understand the benefits. With no specialized pre-primary teachers and little to no resources made available, schools would typically assign any primary teacher to teach an extra class. In most cases, these teachers had no prior training on early childhood development. As a result, classes were not engaging, and children continued to drop out, with first grade dropout rates standing at 22 per cent.

In response and together with the Government, UNICEF developed an early childhood education training programme for teachers about the importance of early stimulation, lesson planning, and play-based activities for young children. UNICEF also supported the construction of new pre-primary classrooms and the provision of educational and play materials.

Asyia participated in one of the 20-day trainings in November last year. In her general teaching degree she did not learn about the roles that early stimulation and active play-based activities have for the mental development of young children. The UNICEF training also taught her how to develop lesson plans. “[Before the training] I didn’t know or even plan lessons at all.” Now Asyia plans every lesson properly and has noticed a real difference. “Before, children were afraid and shy to come. Now, because of active participation, they love to come and sometimes don’t want to go back home.”

She explains her ultimate goal for the students. “If I improve my methods and teach active participation, by the time they complete ‘O’ class they should be able to write, read, express themselves and have the behavioral skills needed for Grade 1.”

A true role model for young girls

Asyia is a true role model for all students, particularly for young girls. When asking her students why they like school, 6-year-olds Ahmed Mohammed, Halima Abdu, and Ali Ahmed just pointed to their teacher, indicating that Asyia was the main reason. When Asyia was asked if she sees herself as a role model for girls at her school, her sisters (Asyia is the oldest child of nine), and girls in her community, Asyia shows her widest smile, with pride in her eyes, and nods ‘yes.’

If pastoralist communities do not see the value of education, then it is obvious that girls will not stay in school. It takes skilled, trained, inspiring and dedicated female teachers – like Asyia – to bring positive change for pastoralist girls who live in Afar’s harsh climate.

Asyia now lives as a single woman in her very own traditional home just a short walking distance from the school.  She is happy, empowered and continues to inspire young girls to put education first.

UNICEF advocates to bring more women into leadership roles in the education sector, so that women can be the inspiration for young girls to lead their country one day.