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From Dublin to Ethiopia – where education is the jewel in their crown

By Catherine Devine

Woman and children line the streets in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

On the streets of Ethiopia, ghosts line the crowded paths.

Men, women and children sprawl across the dusty, filthy streets draped in white shawls with empty stares.

The hope has gone from their eyes as they lie starving by the side of the road. Ethiopia is much poorer than I could ever have imagined. The capital city of Addis Ababa looks like it was hastily built and it is home to some 3.38 million people.

Women are the most at-risk group as there are high levels of domestic abuse and rape, with many forced to stay at home rather than get an education. They can be seen lying on roads selling everything from wooden crosses to handmade bags. Some are seen carrying large amounts of wood on their backs, making as little as €2 for their day’s work.

A woman carries wood on her back in Ethiopia

For these women, the only escape from the extreme poverty is education. One woman named Bootu (18) told me how education helped saved her from a life of exile and poverty.

Bootu who is Deaf explained, through an interpreter, her experience of education.

“I am Deaf and I could not learn with hearing pupils because I couldn’t understand the teacher. I did not know any sign language and I was very scared at school. My teacher would get very angry with me because I didn’t understand.

“I came to a special Deaf school run by Irish people and now I can learn. I had to leave my family home to come to the school and I miss my family very much.”

Deaf children at the Irish-run Deaf school in Ambo, Ethiopia

At the school in the rural village of Ambo, Bootu has learned how to communicate as well as learning how to make arts and crafts to sell locally.

Not only is the school helping  Bootu escape poverty, it also helps her family as she sends home the money she makes from selling her crafts.“I send my mother home money as I miss her very much and my father is dead. I always worry about her.”

Catherine Devine with Tirfee (20), Bootu (18) and LemLem (20) at the Deaf school in Ambo, Ethiopia

Even after education, women in Ethiopia still experience gender violence and sexual abuse, but education is empowering them to speak up and get justice.

The Yellow Movement based in Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa gives women a voice and shines a light on the shocking examples of abuse suffered by women.

For the first time in Ethiopia, the 2016 Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS) included Domestic Violence as one of its indicators.

Based on the government’s survey, 35 per cent of all married women have experienced sexual, emotional or physical violence from their husband or partner at some time.

One of the co-founders, a law lecturer at Addis Ababa University, Hilina Berhanu, said that even women with high societal positions suffer from sexual abuse every day.

Hilina Berhanu

“Ironically, I was at a university meeting about gender equality and empowerment when my colleague, who is a government official, put his hand down the back of my dress,” Hilina told Independent.ie.

“I couldn’t believe it. I told myself I was just imagining it but then he slipped his fingers down to my underwear. I was so shocked that I just got up and left.

“I am quite a small woman, and quite childlike, so men act very sexual towards me. Even though I am privileged and have a good position in society, I am still subjected to this abuse.”

Hilina decided to sue her colleague, becoming the first ever woman academic to sue another staff member at Addis Ababa University.

“In the four months, my reputation was ruined on campus. People said that I was making it up because I was looking for a promotion or that I was begging for it by the way I dressed. Typical victim blaming. I was terrified that my career was over.

“Women face this kind of harassment every day and no class group is exempt. It’s because of these experiences that we have movements like the Yellow Movement and Setaweet to help empower women here in Ethiopia. Education gives women empowerment to fight for justice.”

Independent.ie journalist Catherine Devine was funded to travel to Ethiopia to report on gender inequality and violence in the country, and the efforts of aid organisations to help women overcome domestic abuse. Catherine’s project is featured in our project showcase here.