Igniting Hope and Changing Lives
Project Overview:Funded by the Nike foundation, TESFA (Towards Improved Economic and Sexual Reproductive Health Outcomes for Adolescent Girls) meaning “hope” in the Amharic language, aims at enhancing the economic and sexual reproductive status of ever married adolescent girls in the South Gondar Zone of the Amhara regional state. The project brought together all relevant actors who are entrusted with preserving and protecting the social norms, call it early marriage, gender inequality, female genital mutilation (FGM), issues related with family planning, and the likes. These are the village leaders, religious leaders, the mother in‐laws, parents, husbands, and the young married girls who knew very little about the outside world.
Group Interview: We arrived in Mequabia Kebele in the town of Lay Gayint Woreda of South Gondar when the afternoon sun stood directly overhead. Huddled into two huge circles were more than fifty villagers waiting to meet with us as we piled out of the CARE vehicles that brought us to this beautiful village. Our team of four CARE USA staff split into two groups in order to interview both circles of community members simultaneously, so we would not keep them too long in the hot sun.
Roger and I were directed to interview the Social Action and Analysis (SAA) circle; a group of villagers whose purpose is to support the girl’s club members in a show of solidarity. CARE Ethiopia staff then explained the basic composition of the group members gathered there that afternoon: there were 5 religious leaders, 5 mother-in-laws of girl’s club participants, 4 mothers of girl’s club members, 3 community organizers, and 3 gender activists.
Anleyayim, meaning “will not be separated”, SAA group was launched in September 2011, just nine months before we met with them. They meet monthly outside of Atkane church in the center of town. Meetings tend to last 45 minutes or so and cover the curriculum developed by CARE Ethiopia to deal with social issues that impede the success of members of the girl’s clubs. When the group was formed, CARE provided a two day orientation and training to explain the role of the SAA, its members and the role of the girl’s clubs that the SAA groups support.
During the orientation, CARE introduced the community to the TESFA project; its overview, modalities and objectives. As our interview began, Anleyayim members expressed that they were inspired by the project because it has the tools to help girls succeed even under the current social pressures. Members were introduced during the orientation to the concept of harmful cultural practices such as child marriage. Additionally, SAA members received training in the “cascade method” of creating social change by informing five people from his or her social network about the SAA discussion and learning. When asked what sorts of social networks they were using to “cascade” the SAA discussion lessons one woman said, “Those people doing coffee with us.”
We opened the interview with a question about the roles and responsibilities of the Anleyayim SAA group, but directed the question broadly to get a sense for the dynamic we were working with. The result was incredible. One by one, members raised their hands and shared their ideas and understanding of the purpose of Anleyayim – the willingness of everyone to share their opinions was staggering. “Our role is to solve the problems of girls ages 14-19 because they are under pressure of gatekeepers (in-laws, husbands…). They are not independent; they are not decision makers of things that impact their lives. Our role is to support them,” explained one member. “We advise the [girls] groups to be engaged in different economic activities. To strengthen their group for enhancement,” explained another member. “We teach communities based on our opportunities to disseminate information and support the group,” explained a third member.
“We are from diverse backgrounds. Since we are from diverse backgrounds, we represent different parts of the community…our composition is a nice opportunity to disseminate information to the whole community. Religious leaders have the most opportunity to reach community members,” said one member when trying to describe why the Anleyayim SAA group was successful.
“We are acting according to our opportunities,” said another in trying to help us understand that certain members of the SAA group have wider networks of influence than others, but they all contribute to the same goals.
Prior to the TESFA project and the founding of these groups, women carried the burden of tasks in the household with no sense of ownership. “Now,” explained a member, “we are trying to challenge such issues by understanding issues of gender and ownership. It’s our role to facilitate this.”
A middle aged man sitting in the circle raised his hand. He explained to us that he was married to his wife at the age of 24 years, when she was just 9 years old. He lived with his wife after his marriage and did not realize what a burden that was until he joined the Anleyayim SAA group. Now that he has a better understanding, he said that he tries to share the chores with his wife. Before the meetings, he tried to help a little, but did not feel confident that he should do it. Now he helps with confidence and is happy with the results.
Another husband of a girl’s club member and member of the Anleyayim SAA group raised his hand. He said that since the group began last year, he has noticed that participation of girls in community decisions and meetings is now encouraged and valued. Where before women and girls did not even attend the meetings, today they speak up and their opinions are appreciated. He went on to say that the SAA groups are a great idea, but he does not feel that each member reaching just five more people is enough; he wants to see it scaled up to reach more people.
Next the Anleyayim group mother-in-laws began to share their experiences with the group. The first woman said that before she joined Anleyayim, she expected her daughter-in-law to do all the household chores, as was the custom, and to obey her every word. When something was done wrong or left unfinished, she blamed her daughter-in-law. Because of her participation, she realized the burden that placed on her daughter-in-law and is making her life better.
A second woman raised her hand; she too was a mother-in-law of a member of one of the girl’s clubs. She shared that, “I passed through this life under the influence of my mother-in-law, but now I try to consider things for my daughter-in-law. I consider things for not creating burden on her.”
Next, a young priest sitting next to a row of peers raised his hand. He shared that, “previously, early marriage was prevalent, but know that we know [the] health and community consequences we fight back.” I was taken aback. Marriage is the realm of priests in any community and to hear him make a statement like that openly, in front of his fellow priests, was surprising. What came next struck me even more…
Emboldened by the first priests’ statement, a second priest raised his hand to say a few words. He explained, “Harmful traditional practices like FGM is common [here]. But after TESFA, we realize it’s not in the bible and not appropriate, so we have opened our eyes and [are] acting appropriately.” He went on to say, “FGM has been reduced and we debate the issue – we debate everything so we understand the real reason for changing the practice. Consequences are clear through [this] analysis.”
His statement still ringing in my ears another priest said, “We feel equipped to talk to our networks because of this debate method.”
Roger and I then asked the facilitator, Abaya “Nile” Adan, for this group what future challenges she saw needing to be addressed. She explained that the manual for the SAA curriculum is for just one year, but there is more work to be done. If the group can get additional manuals for continuing training they would like to have that. The other challenge is in trying to “cascade” the knowledge to the entire community. She suggested that it would be good to have all-community member meetings or events to educate a broader audience in a more comprehensive way than can be done in small groups.
As Roger and I sat cross-legged in the dirt, in the shade of an umbrella, talking to this diverse crowd of villagers who shared so openly their experience with the TESFA project and the SAA group trainings, I recognized something profound was happening here – change. Not change imposed by some American NGO that would dissipate upon departure; change in the hearts of these leaders. That change was creating hope, and hope is the spark that ignites a brighter future.