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The girls and women of Ethiopia

ADDIS ABABA—This is the capital and largest city of Ethiopia. This piece of information is mainly for the benefit of a friend of mine, who, after I informed her by text that I was in Addis Ababa texted back: “Okay, keep safe wherever that is.”

I confess I didn’t know initially what to expect when the organizers of “Women’s Edition,” a program of the Population Reference Bureau that provides training and information for groups of women journalists from the developing world, informed us that our next seminar would be held in Ethiopia. Since my knowledge of Ethiopia was based mainly on news stories dating back to the 1970s-1990s about the famines, scourges and coups that beset the country, the first thought that crossed my mind was that I would be visiting a desolate, hard-scrabble land.

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But when I mentioned to some friends that I would be visiting Addis Ababa, one of them said she’d heard the city was quite cosmopolitan, and that quite a lot of international organizations are based here. An Internet check confirmed that “Addis,” as the city is fondly called, is known as “the political capital of Africa,” since it hosts the African Union among other regional and international organizations.

Driving to my hotel very early Saturday morning, I was quite taken aback to find the Addis Ababa Hilton not smack in the city center as I expected, but rather set amid a tiny village, after a short drive from the airport over what looked like dusty lanes.

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WHEN I asked Brenda Zulu, a Zambian freelance journalist, who is also part of Women’s Edition and is a frequent Addis visitor, where Addis’ city center was, she began with a reference to Ethiopia’s history. “Ethiopia was never colonized except for a short while in the 1940s,” she said, “and so the city was not built along European patterns.” Addis Ababa, added Zulu, is built along traditional African village settings, with the homes and compounds of “wealthy people” sitting in the middle of smaller structures housing the members of their household and their farm staff.

As I write this, I have yet to view Addis outside the walls of the Hilton, which sits amid a garden setting and a small “village” of shops, including a tiny supermarket. But the view from my window consists of a jumble of skyscrapers and houses against a backdrop of mountains. In fact, the weather is cool and a bit damp, with sudden bursts of rainfall in the afternoon.

Another thing I know about Ethiopia I learned, strangely enough, in Jerusalem on a visit to Israel some years back. Working our way on foot through the Via Dolorosa, or the path that Jesus trod on the way to Golgotha, we ducked into a small, dark church that was administered by the monks of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. I would later learn that Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world (dating back to 4 A.D.) and that more than 70 percent of the population belongs to the Orthodox Church while about 16 percent are Muslims.

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ONE of the more remarkable things I have observed from my very short stay thus far in Addis Ababa is how the women so uncannily look like each other. Most of them are tall and willowy, with sharp noses and large beguiling eyes. The women—beginning with the flight attendants on the Ethiopian Airlines flight, to the staff and guests at the hotel—move with a grace and self-possession that I can only envy.

I was thus quite disturbed to read a BBC report titled “Ethiopian girls fight child marriages” which essentially covered the visit of members of “The Elders,” described as a group of eminent global leaders brought together by South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela.

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The delegation of Elders, was led by retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland, and Gro Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway and former head of the World Health Organization.

The group was in the Amhara Region of Ethiopia, described in the report as “an impoverished rural farming area where half of all girls are married before they turn 15,” to investigate the social, cultural and economic causes of child marriage, as well as to look into programs, some of them initiated by the government, that have succeeded in bringing down the number of child brides and grooms.

“It’s quite shattering to have met people who were married off,” Tutu told the BBC on a visit to the area. “In one case the husband was eight and the supposed wife was seven. I mean you want to say it’s abominable,” he said.

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“AWARENESS” is a principal factor that those behind the successful programs are counting on to end the “abomination” of child marriage.

One approach is the creation of “girls’ clubs” such as Berhane Hewan, Amharic (the native language of Ethiopia) for “Light for Eve.” In these clubs, young girls learn about issues that, so the report said, “have prepared (them) to resist early marriage: personal health, HIV/AIDS, and the medical complications associated with giving birth at a young age, like fistula.”

The last, by the way, is the medical condition when, during the process of childbirth, the tissues separating the birth canal and the rectum are torn. I don’t know what the incidence of fistula in the Philippines is, but it is quite a common condition in the developing world, especially in Africa, especially for child brides.

I was glad to read of the success being attained through such programs like the girls’ clubs, if only because it could mean a better future for more women of Ethiopia, with all their natural grace and dignity.

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TAGS: Africa, child brides, columns, Ethiopia, featured columns, opinion
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