AXUM, Ethiopia – Hannah Godefa was seven years old when she became friends with a girl on a visit to her parents’ home in Axum, Ethiopia. She wanted to become pen pals with her friend once she returned to Canada, but her parents revealed that her friend did not have writing materials. Godefa, now 15 years old, used the situation to advocate for equal education opportunities for girls. She founded Pencil Mountain, a resource mobilization service that has delivered more than half a million school supplies to children in Ethiopia.
Opportunities are limited for rural Ethiopian girls because they are valued for domestic work. Education for Ethiopian boys takes precedence over education for girls, which has left girls disproportionately more illiterate. Hannah has found advocacy difficult in rural areas of Ethiopia because of the traditional cultural values that hold girls back. Rural Ethiopian girls are married off while they are still children or stay home to help their families.
Alemtsahye Gebrekidan, the founder of the Former Child Wives Foundation, was a child bride herself and credits education as a way out. Gebrekidan detailed that she was 10 years old when she married a boy from her village. Girls in her village were married off young as a way to ward off the loss of virginity before marriage and make the marriage better. A day in the life of Gebrekidan consisted of walking miles in search of food and water, household duties and taking care of a baby.
Gebrekidan was a widow and the mother of a one-month-old baby by the time she was 13 years old. Her husband was killed in the Ethiopian civil war, leaving her without an income or education to fall back on. Gebrekidan worked as an unpaid servant at the age of 15, when she was trafficked to Egypt. She was then trafficked a year later to London to work for the same family as a domestic servant. Her passport was taken away from her and she was locked away in the house without food or money when the family traveled.
Once Gebrekidan escaped her servitude, she applied for asylum and eventually finished her education several decades later. She struggled to find employment due to the confidence, skills and experience child marriage had prevented her to gain. However, Gebrekidan emphasized the importance of education and how it empowered her to use her experience to create her organization to help girls and women who suffered as child brides.
The Ethiopian government and nongovernmental organizations have gotten involved in expanding educational opportunities for girls in rural Ethiopia. Godefa was named a UNICEF ambassador in January for her humanitarian efforts in rural Ethiopia. Pencil Mountain has delivered 25,000 pencils and 400,000 other basic school supplies to Ethiopian children in remote locations. Distribution is carried out by the Ministry of Education and the Ethiopian Airlines cargo sponsors it. Hannah recently gave 600 books to Debremarkos University and wheelchairs to handicapped children.
Education in Ethiopia is on the rise as more initiatives are made to expand education opportunities and improve the quality. Ethiopia has tripled its primary school enrollment rate to 88 percent. It is in the minority of African countries using National Learning Assessments in four-year intervals for designated grade levels.
Godefa makes her own education first priority as she balances her school work with her advocacy work. She sees it as an investment into the future because being well educated will allow her to have a greater impact. As a UNICEF ambassador, Hannah will use the opportunity as a platform for improving education.
– Brittany Mannings