In a simple schoolhouse in a rural Ethiopian village, Zeineba Wado Markato eagerly raises her hand. She stands and recites the capitals of African countries. Her classmates clap in response.
Zeineba, who is in seventh grade, wasn’t always so confident. She was afraid to answer questions in front of her peers, especially boys. But now she’s receiving tutoring, which has boosted her self-esteem. And, she is seeing results. Her grade has improved from a 75% to an 89%.
Education is not a given for girls in villages like Zeineba’s. Families often invest their limited resources in boys’ schooling. Girls are expected to care for their families and perform household chores like collecting water. They also face harmful traditional practices, like early marriage. Some girls marry as young as 12.
Catholic Relief Services is working with the Church and local partners to provide girls like Zeineba opportunities to break through these barriers and reach their full potential. We’re helping them stay in school by providing tutoring support and covering school fees. We’re also engaging community leaders to change attitudes and promote gender equality.
For girls who have left school, we organize savings groups and trainings to help them invest in small businesses.
After her morning classes, Zeineba leads a gender club meeting. A group of about 15 students, both girls and boys, gather in the grass outside the school. The club is a support system. Members discuss challenges girls face and increase boys’ understanding. They follow up with girls who have dropped out of school and help raise awareness about girls’ rights in their families and community — including dividing the burden of household work.
“I help my mother by fetching water, making coffee and collecting firewood,” one boy says proudly.
The group also talks about menstrual hygiene. Schools in rural Ethiopia rarely have separate restrooms for girls or adequate hygiene supplies, making it difficult for girls to attend school during their menstrual cycle. We’re helping girls stay in school by constructing latrines with separate facilities and providing sanitation materials. Now Zeineba doesn’t have to miss three or four days of learning each month.
When Zeineba gets home from school, she quickly changes out of her bright blue school uniform. She then prepares a meal of barley soup for her family. Her parents are proud of her success.
Zeineba’s mother got married when she was 15 and never went to school. Four of Zeineba’s sisters got married before completing their education. Their mother regrets this. For Zeineba, it will be different.
“Zeineba’s future is bright,” her mother says. She wants her to attend university and find a good job.
That’s Zeineba’s plan. She wants to be a doctor. “If you go to a health clinic, women and girls are the most vulnerable, so I want to treat them,” she says.
Zeineba’s father says she is already setting an example for her neighbors and her two younger sisters. He hopes she can help change her community, and her country.
“I’m teaching my sisters to follow in my footsteps,” Zeineba says.
Education is a right for all children and opens doors. Beginning in the 1940s with school nutrition projects across West Africa, CRS’ education programming has grown to 76 projects across 38 countries worldwide.
As we mark this 75th year, we celebrate the dreams and opportunities of girls like Zeineba.
Copyright 2018 Anna Burns for Catholic Relief Services