LAGRANGE, Ohio — When the 2020 Ethiopian civil war began, a girl named Asya had to leave school; she was in the fourth grade. “When I heard the gunshots, I was so frightened,” she told UNICEF U.S.A. Due to the ongoing civil war, Asya cannot resume her education. “I don’t want to miss out on my education,” she told UNICEF. “I want to go back to school.” Asya dreams of becoming a doctor so that she can help people afflicted with illnesses. By prioritizing girls’ education in Tigray amid the conflict, the dreams of Asya and many other girls like her can become a reality.
Girls’ Education in Ethiopia Before the Conflict
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) states that in 2003, Ethiopian girls’ school enrollment rates at the primary level rose from 51% to 95% by the end of 2017. Despite high enrollment rates, in 2018, just 53% of Ethiopian girls finished their primary level education and just a quarter of Ethiopian girls attended secondary school. About 10% of Ethiopian girls who complete secondary school move on to tertiary education.
UNICEF explains why this education gap exists, including cultural and structural rationales. For example, cultural gender norms mandate that girls and women shoulder the burden of child caretaking, household chores and responsibilities such as collecting water. These time-consuming endeavors often leave girls with no time or energy to attend school and focus on their educational goals. Impoverished families also tend to prioritize the education of male children over female children as societal perceptions consider males to be of higher value than women. In Ethiopia, child marriage is common, a factor that impedes education as many girls drop out of school after marriage.
History of the Tigray Conflict and its Impact on Girls’ Education
The Council on Foreign Relations reports that the conflict between the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan leadership began in November 2020. Although the conflict began more than a year ago, its roots trace back almost three decades.
The BBC reports that, since 1994, Ethiopia’s governmental system has allowed various ethnic groups to “control the affairs of 10 regions.” The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) set up this unique federal system in 1991 after a military regime ended. While this led to Ethiopia’s prosperity and stability, citizens raised concerns about human rights and democracy. This led to protests and Abiy Ahmed rose to power as prime minister in 2018. Ahmed set up the Prosperity Party,” removed key Tigrayan government leaders accused of corruption and repression” and brought to a close an age-old “territorial dispute with neighboring Eritrea.” Due to this act of peacebuilding, Ahmed even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
Tigrayan critics in leadership positions viewed these reforms as “an attempt to centralize power and destroy Ethiopia’s federal system.” When Tigray went against the central government by implementing “its own regional election” in September 2020, the conflict came to a head. Ahmed’s central government then made the decision to halt funding to Tigray and “cut ties” in October 2020. The Tigrayan leadership averred this move as “a declaration of war.” Finally, when the central government accused Tigray’s military of “attacking army bases to steal weapons,” the civil war began.
Ethiopia’s Development Indicators
On the Human Development Index, Ethiopia ranks 173th out of 189 countries, quantitatively indicating poor quality of life. The Ethiopian life expectancy is 66.6 years and the average number of schooling years is 8.8 years. There remains a gender disparity in education with boys receiving 9.3 years of schooling while girls only receive 8.3 years of education on average. Since the conflict is still ongoing, it is reasonable to extrapolate that Tigrayan girls continue to face a disadvantage in receiving a quality education.
Global Citizen explains the impact of Tigray’s conflict on Ethiopian children in an October 2021 article. Tigrayan children could not attend school since March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing conflict. The war has led to the destruction of schools and the looting of school supplies, meaning there are no resources or places for children to learn. Estimates from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education indicate that the war inflicted damage on about 7,000 schools. Moreover, as the war spread into other northern Ethiopian regions, UNICEF reported in November 2021 that about 3 million children were unable to continue their education.
The Benefits of Girls’ Education in Tigray
Girls’ education has benefits on an individual level and a national level. The World Bank states that females who receive an education are more knowledgeable “about nutrition and health care,” enter into marriage later in life and “have fewer children” who are typically in better health than children of uneducated mothers. In addition, Girls and women who receive an education are more likely to access higher-paying, skilled jobs that allow them to contribute to the economy as productive citizens.
The Tegaru Disaster Relief Fund (TDRF)
The Tegaru Disaster Relief Fund (TDRF) is helping mitigate the impacts of the crisis in Ethiopia. TDRF works at the humanitarian level to help displaced Tigrayans. Founded in 2018 by young professional diaspora Tigrayans, the organization provides disaster relief in the form of efforts to advance education, economic resiliency and health systems.
In its education efforts, TDRF has three goals: helping children and young people achieve proficiency in reading and math; providing “equal access to affordable technical, vocational and higher education” and providing skills training “for employment and productivity.” TDRF accomplishes these goals by providing support to initiatives that construct schools, awarding school scholarships and “providing women with equitable access to information, skills training and markets” to help women secure incomes and accumulate assets.
While the Tigray crisis seems intractable, TDRF provides tangible steps to mitigate the war’s impacts on Tigrayan people, especially vulnerable girls and women.
– Ozichukwu Ojukwu