‘Declining rates of child marriage have been one of the recent success stories of Ethiopia. It has been a combined effort.
The work has been done at the grassroots, and when we talk about women and girls, this is where we have to go.'
These powerful words of Ethiopia’s first ever female President, Sahle-Work Zewde, demonstrate fearlessly her ambition to improve rights for women and girls, and promote female empowerment from within the nation. Grassroots work is crucial in providing sustainable and lasting change. Together with our strategic partners, we are passionate about ensuring that our projects promote this cause, and empower women to change their communities for the better.
Over the last 16 months, alongside our Charity Partner Plan International UK, measurable grassroots change has been made to the lives of vulnerable children in Gambella's refugee camps, as part of the first phase of a four year project to protect over 30,000 children and give them back the chance to learn.
South Sudan became independent from Sudan in 2011. In the six years since, the nation in northeastern Africa has battled to maintain peace, first during an armed conflict with Sudan that ended in 2015, and now during an ongoing violent civil war.
This war has caused more than 1.9 million people to flee the country, making it one of the most severe humanitarian crisis in the world. Neighbouring Ethiopia has opened its borders, and 375,000 from South Sudan are currently living in camps and host communities in the Gambella region. 65% of these are children.
We know that time and time again, in volatile situations the vulnerable are disproportinately affected. This means that with a regional food shortage, vital services like education and child protection are severely limited. A whole generation of children is at risk of losing their chance of a decent future.
Image courtesy of Plan International UK
The project was scheduled to launch in March 2018, however due to delays and difficulties within the region, there was a slower start than expected. Most of the planned activies instead begain in November 2018. It is important to us that the projects our donors support are sensitive to the needs of individual communities, allowing extra time and consideration to ensure the success of such a large project.
When launching a project of this scale, reliable support is invaluable. The project began by finalising contracts and research tools with research partners the University of Sussex and Gambella University. With the help of these partners, a needs assessment was carried out in Gambella's host community schools, to identify where we will be working. Through this, target schools were able to be selected - spanning three refugee camps, four host communities, and two large districts. To finalise this planning stage, an important training session on gender and inclusion with the head-teachers and othe key school staff was carried out, to ensure shared aims and objectives.
Ensuring that girls have role models they can identify with is instrumental in inspiring them to take charge of their own futures. So far, the project has recruited and trained 41 'Mothers in Schools' who will act as female role models and provide support to young girls. They will also work to encourage parents to send (and keep sending) their daughters to school, and follow up with dropouts. In Ethiopia’s unpredictable rainy season, the project has also distributed umbrellas so the Mothers can comfortably visit families at home, and face one less barrier to following up on girls who are missing school.
When girls are inspired, real change is possible. The project has also recruited 50 amazing girl leaders, who are ready and waiting to lead 'Gender Clubs', to champion gender equality and work to make girls' voices heard. The most powerful change is often created through youth-run campaign models, by young people who can not only who can not only create and implement relevant programmes, but influence their peers.
Our projects go where we are most needed. In Gambella, 4 schools have been selected where extra classrooms and latrines will be built, and supply and construction contractors have been engaged. In addition, research is underway to determine the best way to ensure that girls have the menstrual supplies they need to feel secure and empowered at school.
The project has also started work with school staff on Codes of Conduct and School Improvement Plans. We know that by harnessing the power of entire communities, real change is sustainable. Alongside this, new teaching and learning materials are being bought for schools, and a pilot programme has been launched to help 1800 children catch up on basic numeracy, local language and English skills.
Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child specifies that children - wherever they are born - have the fundamental Right to Play. With this in mind, the project has decided on an approach to host events for children like sports and theatre, including using the events to mark the Day of the African Child on June 16th, World Refugee Day on June 20th, and the 16 Days of Activism in November.
As the next phase of the project begins, research has begun to evaluate the new teaching tools with a pilot programme in one of the four camps. This pilot analyses a comprehensive sample population of 800 children in Grade 3 and Grade 4, and 240 teachers and Teaching Assistants, and will be used in the future as the project's baseline study.
Its incredibly encouraging to see this critically important work begin to make some real difference in the lives of thousands of refugee children in Ethiopia. But we are not complacent, with much more work to be done we are looking forward to continuing to work alongside our Charity Partners to transform education for many more children, and ensure that the change achieved is realistic and sustainable, long after the project ends.