A Gender Project

A Gender Project
One of the most satisfying programs I worked on in Mekelle was a gender project – it goes back a while now. I enjoyed it so much was because I was involved from the very beginning through to the end – well almost to the end. More on that later. The aim: to improve the success of girls at university by reducing the drop-out rate in the first year. We were able to do it because a UK friend celebrated March 8th International Women’s day with a fundraising event.
Having made the decision to do the project, I found a few likely people to share ideas with then made the outline plan. Also, I found some statistics and interesting background information. Some facts:
• At least 25% of girls drop out of university in Ethiopia (compared to 8% of boys), with the majority leaving during the first year;
• Girls represent only 25.6% of the University student population in the first year (fewer in later years).
The people involved were the Head of Gender at the Regional Education Bureau, (REB), our friend Mitiku, a lecturer at the University, the Head of Women’s Affairs at Mekelle University, Abraha my translator and Jackie Hoskins friend of VSO in Pangbourne, UK, who led fund raising. Transition from high school to university to improve preparation for university was the target area.
The first step was to identify the challenges. There is quite a lot of reading material available on this subject with some quite shocking statistics. Problems ranged from derision by male peers and staff, sexual harassment, unwanted pregnancy and rape. Girls were accused of sleeping with the lecturers if they got good grades – not altogether without foundation in some cases where I’ve heard the expression “sexually transmitted grades”. The final year of school and first year at university are the years when most rapes are reported (how many are not reported?). Girls are particularly vulnerable when walking long distances from home to school and also at university, especially when unreliable electricity plunges the areas into darkness. In these cases, perpetrators cannot be identified because of lack of light.
Other factors that cause girls to drop out include lack of self confidence in their own ability, lack of appropriate guidance and counselling services, lack of teacher support, anxiety, poor time management, weak academic background, homesickness and economic problems. Lack of self confidence in own ability and weak academic background can sometimes be attributed to the policy of “affirmative action”. This means that the entrance requirement for girls is lower than for boys. This can lead to frustration all round and explains some of the derision. The girls feel out of their depth, the male students don’t like the inequality and the lecturers have a broader academic range to teach. Having said all that, many higher education institutes provide support and clubs once the girls are at university. Our plan was to better prepare them before they go and hopefully to avoid some of the issues encountered in the early days.
We asked current first year students at Mekelle University to identify areas they themselves found challenging in their first year, then asked them to suggest training priorities for future students. This is what they came up with:
Challenges noted by First year female University students:
• Homesickness (missing family)
• Financial difficulties
• English language difficulty (the working language is English – the idea is to prepare students for the international context)
• Academic difficulties (linked with affirmative action)
• Pressure from family.
It would be interesting to know if these would appear on the any list drawn up by UK students. It was also interesting to see that the challenges they identified themselves were different from the training recommendations they made. It was suggested that the girls might be intimidated by the possibility that their lecturers could have access to their questionnaire responses – I would do that bit differently another time
Training priorities suggested by First Year University students:
• Assertiveness (against intimidation by family, staff or peer pressure)
• Assertiveness (against sexual harassment by students or staff)
• Self-esteem and confidence building
• Time management
• HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention
• Hygiene
Once focus areas were agreed we set about the logistics of the training including the number of sessions, timing, number of students, venue, trainers and refreshments – to come within budget.
We invited two Lecturers from the University to lead the training and drew up a programme relevant to the key areas raised. Also two current students from the University were there for a final Q and A session. It was great that all schools who were asked wanted to take part and all but one of the invited girls attended. We kept the contact details of girls and intend to follow up their progress in one year’s time.
Whilst we were happy with the program overall I wasn’t entirely satisfied. The girls we trained this time were all from Mekelle – a regional capital which provides exposure to “city life” and access to many things not found in the country. The contrast between the two lifestyles is such that any girl with the ability to do well at university but from a rural background would encounter so many more challenges. If I could continue this work, I would want to offer some sort of preparation to girls from the country too.
Although I said this was one of the best projects I worked on, as luck would have it I ended up being double booked for the actual training day. I was really disappointed as out of all the things I’d done, this was really my baby but I was also supposed to be in Addis for a different meeting. I was torn, until I decided to nominate someone to take my place at the gender session. That person was John! He looked more than a bit shocked when I asked him, particularly at a “gender” session. Is it really appropriate to send a man in your place? But he went along with it and it was great for me to have his first-hand feedback. It also explains why the photos include him whilst I’m nowhere to be seen!

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And so, just before the last words – from a man – thanks again to Jackie Hoskins and her friends whose fundraising made the event possible!

Gender Project – John’s experience
Yes, well, when Barbara found she was double booked (volunteer committee in Addis and gender project in Mekelle) and asked me to stand in for the latter, I was a little discombobulated. I don’t really do public stuff, and it was a whole Saturday, and I wouldn’t understand anything, and it was for girls and I’m a boy, and… suffice it to say, I agreed willingly. I’m glad I did.
The event began in the time-honoured Ethiopian way, approximately 1.5 hours late, as the girls trickled in from their different parts of town. But in the end, they did all turn up, which was a nice surprise. It was introduced by the Head of Curriculum at the Regional Education Bureau, Ato Bahta, who spoke eloquently and at length, in Tigrinya. I understood the words “Miss Barbara”, which recurred with gratifying frequency. Miss Barbara had prepared a short speech in English for me to deliver after him. To save time, I delivered the first section in English, translated by her friend, colleague and translator Abraha, who then delivered the rest in Tigrinya.
Formalities over, the workshop proper began with each of the 35 girls introducing herself briefly and stating her life ambitions. I didn’t do an exact count, but I would say that 80% wanted to be doctors or engineers. Anecdotally, the impression we have is that engineering is nothing like as gendered in Ethiopia as in the West.
The workshop leader for the morning (a lecturer from the university’s psychology department) then began proceedings with something relatively unusual in Ethiopia, group work. The girls were divided into four mixed-school groups and asked to nominate a “leader” and prepare presentations on a set of topics relating to their experience of school and their expectations of higher education. After 30 minutes or so of preparation, each group produced a written summary of their discussions, which were then presented by the group representatives.
This was the bit I found remarkable. Four girls aged 17/18, 30 minutes of preparation, no notes, approximately 10 minutes of continuous, relaxed, fluent and (presumably) coherent talk, followed by interventions of equal fluency (and presumably coherence) from the floor, followed by responses… Two of the girls were astonishing, the other two merely brilliant. If capacity for self-expression is associated with empowerment, these girls at least don’t need gender projects. More seriously, it was another indication, perhaps, that Ethiopia remains in many ways an oral rather than a writing culture. Of course the girls who opted to speak were a self-selecting group, but I suspect that this kind of fluency and confidence would be rare to find in a similar selection of teenagers in the UK (girls or boys).
This took us up to lunch. The afternoon’s proceedings, with a different leader, were more conventional, with chalk and talk on different aspects of the university experience, followed by Q&A. My understanding was largely confined to a few key words like “alcohol, drugs, sex, condoms, AIDS, Facebook…”, which were clear enough clues to the content of the exposition. Be careful with Facebook, everyone – you start with FB, and you’re soon on to harder stuff…
For the final session, two female university students (fluent and confident, of course) joined us to talk about their own experience and take questions. The exchanges were lively and full of laughter, with a lot of focus on self-assertion, confidence, self-respect… One of the students spoke about her realisation that if a boy asked her to go for a walk with him, she was perfectly entitled to say no…
Embarrassingly, I hadn’t anticipated that “Mr John” would be asked to say a few words at the end. Had I been Ethiopian, I would no doubt have held them all spellbound for at least 15 minutes, but all I managed was “thank you for coming” in two languages. The audience was clearly disappointed, and I thought of all sorts of clever and inspiring things I might have said, but unfortunately a day late…

The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO

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