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Communities in Ethiopia unite to keep girls in school

This story is based on a case study by Anita Raj, Emma Jackson L. McDougal at the University of California San Diego.

We know education protects girls from child marriage. But it is not always clear exactly how.

A community programme in Ethiopia offers an inspiring story of change and shows how communities can unite to keep girls in school. Their name is ODA, the Oromia Development Association.

In Ethiopia, around two in five girls marry before 18, and almost one in five marry before 15. With marriage comes early motherhood: child brides often have to prove they can bear children and they don’t usually get much  say in the matter. It’s therefore no surprise that around 358,000 babies are born each year to married adolescent girls in Ethiopia.

To address a problem this big, ODA needed to work with the whole community.

Talking with Buyyo Primary School students. Photo credit: Alemayehu Gezahegn / the Oromia Development Association/ Packard Foundation.

Transforming attitudes

To help keep girls from dropping out of school, ODA recruited teachers to give lessons on gender equality and sexual and reproductive health. This helps girls know their rights and how to protect themselves from becoming pregnant, which is one of the reasons why girls drop out of school.

To encourage parents to support this initiative, ODA ran community awareness sessions and set up a savings scheme to help families save for the cost of sending their daughters to school. They also gave out awards to families for girls that got good grades!

Running since 1993, the programme has now reached over 200 communities, focusing on married and unmarried girls as well as parents and husbands who make the decisions in their lives.

Parents and children come together to learn and talk about child marriage. Photo credit: Shabudin Shenura / the Oromia Development Association/ Packard Foundation.

The impact on child marriage

The results are telling. A number of girls have avoided marriage. Girls who were already married said they gained confidence, knowledge and skills.

As one married 15-year-old girl says, “ODA taught me it is important to stay in school to get a job. Second, it taught my parents and me to see myself as equal to my friends and siblings. Third, they taught me to get a job so I can improve life for my siblings and parents.”

These messages then spread to the wider community, as one teacher explained: “When a student knows about the impact of early marriage, they can tell their family. When the family knows, they can tell the whole community.”

“As knowledge spreads in our Kebele [neighbourhood] we can end child marriage completely.”

Community workers also reported feeling more empowered to support girls. A health worker said “Now we have the skills to help support girls staying in school.”

Girls involved in the programme playing outside. Photo credit: The Oromia Development Association / Packard Foundation.

Girls and boys who attended sexual health sessions learned about pregnancy, childbirth and sexually transmitted infections. “It also got us discussing why we should stop child marriage” said one 14-year-old girl.

Girls even learned how to better communicate and negotiate with the people in their lives. One 18-year-old girl said, “It helped me build good relationships with my parents and my husband, so he supports me staying in school.”

“I am able to use family planning and continue my education now.”

Savings schemes so girls can afford school

The cost of school uniform or textbooks can keep girls out of school, even when their family supports them going.

“Thanks to the saving for school scheme, I have saved money for my uniform and school materials” said one 14-year-old girl who avoided child marriage.

Students with their “saving for education” books. Photo credit: The Oromia Development Association/ Packard Foundation.

Incentives for parents to keep girls in school

Another component of the programme was that female students received awards for performing exceptionally well in school. In fact, these awards targeted parents to encourage them to keep their daughters in school.

 “The first year [one girl] won it, and she won it again last year” said one man in the community. “Her mother and father […] might think that if she brings this kind of blessing today she will bring more blessings tomorrow. They might let her continue her education. She is still first in her class today.”

A 15-year-old girl who avoided child marriage said that “incentives to families and students” all helped. After taking part in the ODA programme, she said “The community started sending girls to school, hoping to have a strong student like the others.”

Empowered girls can say no to child marriage

The biggest impact was probably on girls’ confidence and ability to advocate for themselves. “Now girls know about their rights and how to speak up so they can stay in school” said one teacher.

“Girls were not allowed to go to school before ODA, they did not have equal rights and they could not speak freely with their parents. Things have improved.” A 23-year-old health worker said, “Since ODA, families are sending girls to school.”

An 18-year-old married girl added, “ODA has brought change to the community. Now girls talk to their parents about important topics, freely and without fear.”

And the community has rallied. One teacher described supporting a girl in his class to avoid child marriage. “After we heard about the proposal, we worked hard to convince her to say ‘no’” he said. “We spoke to her and convinced her. Then she convinced her family.”

ODA’s biggest achievement? According to one teacher it is:

“The courage girls get to be bold enough to say no to child marriage.”