By Pamela Barnes and Rosemary Ellis
As we write this post, we are on day four of a week-long trip to Ethiopia. From the teeming capital of Addis Ababa to the vast rural terrain of the Amhara region, each day of our trip has delivered a close-up look at the country's rich culture and political commitment toward improving health for women and girls.
Today, on our way back from Amhara, we visited Baso High School in the small city of Debre Berhan, and saw firsthand the progress in helping young people make informed reproductive health decisions. Through their eyes, we also saw the heartbreaking shortcomings and tremendous opportunity for more work to be done.
Baso is a secondary school bustling with more than 1,000 students -- 60% of whom are female. Most of the children who study at Baso come from predominantly rural areas, where completing high school is usually not an option because their families struggle economically to survive. For most, making a commitment to stay in school comes at a price -- in the form of long work hours in addition to their studies to earn their keep, estrangement from resistant family members and a lack of access to a strong, familial support system during adolescence.
As we walked into a classroom, we were greeted by 20 or so 10th graders. In a sea of burgundy-colored uniforms, their brightly colored hair accessories and shy smiles set each student apart. Unlike classrooms in the United States, this one was unadorned, with bare walls and minimal bookshelves. The desks were made of raw, uneven wood, and the blackboard was covered in calculus equations.
Baso High School works with health facilities supported by EngenderHealth, and we were there to meet the school's Gender and Health Club. The club offers an extracurricular program designed to help teach and empower students to make informed decisions about sexual and reproductive health. It regularly meets after school to discuss a broad set of issues, ranging from contraceptives, unwanted pregnancy and HIV prevention to life-skills education. The two teachers who serve as group facilitators explained to us that most students at Baso face a greater risk for sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies because of their rural backgrounds and overall lack of education; this club is designed to fill the information gap.
Alem, a 15-year-old club member, shared with us the story of how she became a student. Though she arrived at Baso in the sixth grade like many of her peers, her pursuit of an education was anything but conventional. We listened as Alem described how she narrowly escaped a forced early marriage and had to cut ties with her family as a result. As a 12-year-old, she chose an education instead of a wedding -- and she also chose not to see her family again, something that clearly caused her distress as she recounted her experiences. She explained that some of the girls who started school with her have since dropped out due to the pressures of early marriage and childbearing. Although it was the right choice for her, Alem's decision came with sacrifices. She now works after school washing clothes, cleaning apartments and selling injera (Ethiopian flatbread) to be able to cover her living expenses so she can live in the area and attend school. She hopes to one day attend university.
As we listened to Alem's story, the events of the week -- visiting urban and rural clinics, talking with both the country's Minister of Health and EngenderHealth fieldworkers, touring a bare-bones hospital that serves 2.5 million people -- suddenly became very personal. We saw ourselves as 15-year-olds in Alem, and we were deeply affected by her belief in herself and her ability to dream beyond the limitations that had once been placed on her. Alem chose education, and she is making decisions about her health and her life that will help her achieve her goals. She told us, "If supported, female students could be anything... even Prime Minister." At that moment, it all clicked: We both realized that ultimately this is what investing in contraception and reproductive health is all about--to help girls like Alem reach their dreams.
Rosemary Ellis is the former editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping and serves on the board of EngenderHealth. Follow her on Twitter at Rosemary1Ellis.