Bridging Ethiopia's educational gender gap

Hindi is a bright-eyed 10-year-old in northern Ethiopia just outside the city of Lalibela. Her clothes are ragged and her shoes are scuffed, but nothing dims her pride in her well-worn school notebook, filled with page after page of neatly printed English vocabulary and grammar exercises.

"I love to learn English," she says with a shy smile.

For the Ethiopian government, a girl like Hindi is a harbinger of hope. Although she lives in a rural setting where access to school is often limited, she has made it to the fifth grade. In addition, she is progressing nicely with her studies and she wants to stay in school.

But Hindi is not representative of the majority of girls in this sub-Saharan nation. Only 51 percent of Ethiopia's children make it as far as the fifth grade. And of all the children that do attend school in the country, only about a third are girls.

The gender gap in education is a problem throughout the Third World, but it remains particularly severe in Africa (see story, below). In Ethiopia, the government has focused particular attention on education for girls during the past seven years and today reports some progress.

In 1993, says Tadelech Haile Mikeal, the minister in charge of women's affairs, only about one-third of Ethiopian girls attended primary school. Today, that figure has risen to 48 percent. Some of the growth is due to a 15 percent increase in the number of primary schools during that time, Ms. Tadelech says. Accessibility of schools is a major problem for Ethiopian children, especially those in rural areas.

But Tadelech also credits efforts the government has taken to change long-entrenched attitudes about schooling for girls. Recognizing that many parents may not see the value in that, the Ethiopian government has launched a series of songs, poems, newspaper articles, radio discussions, and even short plays staged in public places, all designed to illustrate the benefits of schooling girls.

"A poor rural family would rather have girls stay at home and help with the chores," Tadelech says. Also, many girls in Ethiopia still marry at ages as young as 12. "Education has a long-term benefit and that's harder for people to see."

The government campaign has included efforts to knock down some of the more-subtle barriers to progress for girls. Curriculum and textbooks have been revised to winnow out negative images that might suggest boys can hold professional positions but girls cannot.

An affirmative-action program has also been set up to offer girls more role models by adding to the ranks of female teachers. (Only 28 percent of the nation's primary schoolteachers are women.) One encouraging sign for young girls may be the fact that the current minister of education, Guerent Zawdie, is a woman, the only woman holding a key ministerial position.

But despite steps forward, progress throughout the developing world in eradicating the educational gender gap is "excruciatingly slow," says Mary Joy Pigozzi, senior education adviser for the United Nations Children's Fund in New York. Even after a decade of international focus on the problem, "we haven't made the gains we'd like to," Ms. Pigozzi says.

In Ethiopia, a turbulent political past has also kept many children from their school desks. Although the late Emperor Haile Selassie poured resources into education and even served as an advocate for girls' education - he created a number of public boarding schools to help rural girls become literate - many of his reform efforts crumbled when he was overthrown by a Marxist government in 1974.

During the Marxist era, which lasted until 1991, some students were afraid to attend school. Yelfign Worku, today the head of women's affairs at the ministry of education, was a secondary schoolteacher in those years and remembers the chaos: "Teachers were jailed, students were passed from grade to grade without learning anything, and there was a feeling of deep insecurity," she recollects. "I had my students telling me they didn't even want to learn." Today, she says, a more peaceful environment has restored the eagerness of children to study, but resources are required to repair the neglect of almost 20 years.

A keen interest in education among children is immediately obvious to any visitor to Ethiopia. While many youths will ask for money and sweets, at least an equal number will beg for pens and notebooks. Children can often be seen walking to and from school clutching composition books that may be battered but are highly valued nonetheless.

Such items are not come by easily, Pigozzi points out. "You have to realize that the cost of that notebook represents a big investment for a family," she says. To make such an investment, she says, parents need to believe in the importance of what their children - girls and boys - are doing in school.

*E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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