Women, War, and Development in Ethiopia

Secareda Mariam was twelve years old when her mother died, leaving her orphaned and solely responsible for the maintenance of the plastic shelter she and her mother built for themselves out of discarded shopping bags and pieces of cloth. "Who will help me fix my plastic during the rainy season?" she asks, pointing to the rood of her eight foot by four foot makeshift dwelling. Squatting in a hollow corner of her house, she looks down at her toes as they draw anxious circles in the dust. Large and thickly callused for a twelve year old, her feet are swollen from the miles of concrete she walked today to sell kola, a nutty grain eaten as a snack by city dwellers. As a child now unsupported and unguarded on the streets of the capital city, Secareda is uneasy about her future. "Sometimes boys rob me and take my earnings," Secareda explains. "But usually I have enough money at the end of the day to buy food."

Unfortunately, Secareda's situation is more accepted than it is exceptional. Frequent sights on urban streets, plastic shelters become permanent homes for thousands of women and girls in Ethiopia. A visible symptom of a more elusive urban disease, Ethiopia's nation of street children shows no signs of disbanding. Exacerbated by civil war, drought, and an anemic economy, the number of Ethiopia's street children has mushroomed to 100,000 this year. The population of Addis Ababa has doubled in the last two years from two million to four million; meanwhile, employment opportunities, urban sanitation, and health care facilities have all deteriorated. Women and girls seem to suffer a disproportionate share of the urban ills. In Addis Ababa, almost one-third of the omnipresent plastic homes belong to single mothers, many of whom are teenagers and over 25% of the city's street children are from single-mother households.

Different political and socio-economic factors help explain Ethiopia's urban influx and the resulting stress imposed on metropolitan women. The end of Ethiopia's seventeen year old career of civil war meant the beginning of life on the pavement for large numbers of women and children. Many families of the former military now inhabit Ethiopia's pavement; 40% of all street children in Addis Ababa are children of ex-Mengistu soldiers, soldiers who served in the Ethiopian army (the continent's largest standing army at the time) until the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ousted Mengistu and his communist forces in early 1991. Though the EPRDF effectively disarmed and demobilized the military losers, and present government has yet to offer adequate pensions for the hundreds of thousands of former soldiers or meaningful benefits to children and wives surviving veterans crippled or killed in the war.

Today, the soldiers who returned to their families drift through the streets-a few still wearing full combat fatigues, many amputees from land mines-trying to support themselves and their families by begging. Handicapped further by a de facto employment boycott because they fought to uphold communist rule, many ex-soldiers turn to their wives and children to generate income. Often children from these households become young breadwinners, shinning shoes, selling kola, or washing cars to contribute to their families' income. Not surprisingly, 65% of all children working on the streets indicated that they thought their parents approved of their work. Women who raise an average of six children must also secure sufficient work to support young children and disabled husband.

For women of the northern provinces of Ethiopia and the now independent country of Eritrea, a return to peace signified a regress back to inequality and social stratification. During the height of the independence movement, thousands of women from Eritrea were drafted into the combat forces; a spokesman for the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) once boasted that by the conflict's zenith in 1991 almost two-fifths of the EPLF's front line were female. The opportunity, equality, and education that Eritrean women were afforded by a national cause, whose severity necessitated a dismantling of traditional gender roles, quietly vanished when peace appeared. Today many Eritrean women and discouraged from seeking higher education or pursuing careers in academics though all soldiers of the EPLE-women included - were educated to pass demanding literacy and numeracy examinations. In Ethiopia's wartorn provinces of the north, the situation is similar. Many of those women who gathered intelligence and helped plan covert raids for the Tigray People's Liberation Front now must reacquaint themselves with their pre-war roles of subservience and domestication.

Internal migration also contributes to Ethiopia's urban problems and the pressure they exert on women. Hopeful for work, social services and security, many families migrated soon after the war from heavily hit villages to urban centers. Mass migration frequently separates families; Mekele, the provincial capital of Tigray, hosts the country's largest population of single-mother households and orphaned children. Despite intense re-unification efforts by UN and NGO agencies, 40% of Mekele mothers raise children without fathers and 25% of Mekele street children are still without parents.

Upon arrival in the cities, many families face current economic woes, compounding the misery inside slum areas. Inflation now plagues depressed urban centers; after last year's controversial currency devaluation dropped the official value of one Ethiopian Birr from US$.50 to US$.15, meager earnings can no longer cover the rising cost of goods. "Life is harder now," Groom Wabe explains. Groom is a nineteen year old ex-soldier who lost his left leg and his parents in the recent civil war. Unable to afford rent, he now lives with his older brother on the street in a plastic shelter not far from Secreda's. "Everything is more expensive these days; the price of coffee has tripled and we can't afford sugar anymore."

To combat Ethiopia's street family epidemic, development organizations and government agencies have initiated progressive programs to prevent families from entering life on the streets and to rehabilitate those already committed to the concrete. A large number of these projects are designed to empower urban mother into becoming responsible providers for themselves and their children. Redd Barna of Ethiopia, a well-financed foreign NGO, has recently begun an income generating scheme for single mothers to sell goods through Addis Ababa's informal market. Each month the mothers involved in this program are granted a small loan, from $20-$100, as start-up capital for a home industry such as baking bread or brewing tella (an inexpensive alcoholic drink). Advised by a staff social worker, the women manage their accounts and use the profits to provide their children with clothes, shoes, and school fees.

By establishing a successful spice factory, indigenous Ethiopian Gemini Trust (EGT) also offers secure employment for impoverished mothers. The unique criteria that all 350 EGT factory workers have met is that these women are either the mothers or sisters of twins. "The family of twins are an especially vulnerable case," says Dr. Carmela Abate-Green, EGT's founder and chairperson. "The mothers of twins have it the worst; not only are their babies' mortality rates higher because of the typical low birth weight of twins, but also the financial and maternal strains of having to feed two mouths simultaneously can be unbearable." From grinding garlic to sealing tea bags, the EGT women control all levels of production of a various number of common household spices. Their finished goods are marketed through catalogues and local kiosks; profits are then used to pay wages and make supply purchases.

There are also many urban programs specifically designed for children who live on the street. Officially chartered in 1992, the Forum on Street Children Ethiopia (FSCE) is an indigenous NGO which coordinates the street children projects of fifteen different development organizations, including Christian Children's Fund, Save the Children-US, Norway, and Sweden, and UNICEF. This summer FSCE facilitated the formation of Ethiopia's first street girl "movement"; 200 young women aged from 12 to 17 who work as prostitutes now meet regularly with social workers to discuss concerns ranging from AIDS prevention to protection on the streets to other employment prospects. Many NGO's are especially concerned with this group of street girls who work as prostitutes. The majority of these girls have been forced into prostitution by their families and once alone on the streets, they are extremely vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. Hope Enterprises, another indigenous NGO, leads the efforts to rehabilitate street girls by employing them to make and sell soap. Also, the facilitators of the street girl movement are currently considering supplying street girls with inexpensive condoms and free medical care.

Two years ago FSCE, in cooperation with Save the Children-US, enrolled 500 "high risk" children in school and in a vocational program which trains the children how to make leather handicrafts. "High risk" children are youths from low income families who live with their families in urban slums or temporary dwellings such as plastic houses and bus shelters and who are not enrolled in school. Today there are over 600,000 high risk children in Ethiopia, many fated to soon break from their homes for a life on the streets.

Abebe Girma was once considered a "high risk" child. By nineteen years old, life already had shuffled him from the battlefields of Eritrea to the slums of Addis to the cozy, well-appointed interior of a leather goods workshop which he and two high risk girls built themselves through a group lending scheme administered by Sve the Children and FSCE. A huge painting of Jesus and Mary hangs on the wall between colorful rows of leather purses and strips of treated cowhide. Abebe admits his successful transition from potential street child to profitable entrepreneur was not always easy. "At first my friends from the street tried to get me to quit the vocational training," Abebe says, peeking from behind a neat stack of coiled belts. "They chew chat, they smoke and drink. They were angry at me when I stayed in the program. Now when I see them on the street I buy them tea, but I try to spend most of my time here at the workshop."

FSCE realizes the need to broadcast Abebe's story. Campaigning to change the public image of families who live on the street, FSCE tags advocacy efforts as it first priority. "We must get the public to stop thinking of these people as thieves, vagabonds, and criminals," explains Tsegaye Cherenet, FSCE chairman. "By using all forms of the media-radio, TV, the press-we try to change the public's perception of children working on the street by educating people about the causes of street children."

Last December, FSCE organized Ethiopia's first National Street Children Week. Now scheduled on the official government calendar, this year's events will include art exhibits, a street children circus, and musical concerts for the general public. Also planned are targeted workshops for policemen, local administrators, and other officials who directly confront street children. "Community participation and support for our street children programs is definitely increasing," Tsegaye adds. "It's just frustrating at times because Ethiopian society tends to forget that most of these children are neither mentally, physically, nor psychologically ready for street life."

Since the end of the civil war, NGO projects which focus exclusively on women and children also have increased in rural and refugee communities. Traditionally, women and girls in rural communities perform the majority of manual labor; for example, Ethiopia's omnipresent "insera" (a bulbous-shaped ceramic water container) is customarily hauled exclusively by females. Likewise, roofing thatch, firewood, and foodstuffs are usually transported by women only. In an attempt to utilize this natural power source, Save the Children Fund-US (SCF-US) encourages women and girls in particular to participate in many of its agriculture assistance programs. Currently, women manage one of SCF-US's fruit nurseries and a crop diversification plot in North Shewa, an area severely devastated by the 1984-85 famine and still plagued by soil erosion and chronic crop failures.

Women of semi-nomadic communities similarly play a vital role in helping rebuild their communities. In most Somali pastoralist communities observed, women not only built temporary shelters, cooked food, and washed clothes, but were usually responsible for bringing their group's cattle to government-administered vaccination sites to receive injections of pneumonia vaccine. The number of these Somali pastoralist families in south eastern Ethiopia has doubled to over 100,000 since past president Siad Barre fled from Somalia in 1991, dropping the country into a vicious mix of civil war and famine. As for the Afar areas of Ethiopia's low land deserts, semi-nomadic women are traditionally entrusted with the arduous monthly trading mission to the nearest market, usually no closer than a week's camel trek away.

Even in Ethiopia's most remote corners, today women face a strange, new type of challenge: tourism. Realizing that foreign exchange is detrimental to their future, economic advisers to the Transitional Government of Ethiopia and its current president Melas Zanawi are optimistically preparing for a rush of western tourists. Xenophobia and political violence disappeared with Mengistu, they say, and travelers' dollars are sure to be lured by the country's scenery, history, and ethnographic diversity. The livelihood of some of the nation's more sensitive indigenous groups, however, could become vulnerable to corrosive foreign influences. The lifestyle transformation that the Mursi women of south-western Ethiopia are currently experiencing, though economically understandable, represents a more diffuse and poignant threat to Ethiopia's indigenous population as a whole.

Slated to become one of Ethiopia's top tourist attractions, Mursi women are one of the few groups of the western Omo River valley to still stretch their lips with ceramic lip plates. Anthropologists claim that Mursi women developed this practice only a few hundred years ago to avoid being kidnapped as slaves. Mursi elders agree that according to their oral history central African slave traders allegedly found their women unattractive. Today, the lip plate has evolved into a symbol of beauty and prestige; the larger the plate a women can carry in her mouth, the more cattle and gifts it will take from potential suitors to win her hand. Mursi women begin the stretching process by making a small incision in the center of their bottom lip and inserting increasingly large disks every six months. They make the disks from fired clay, usually in the shape of a circle.

Because they suffer from frequent cattle raids by neighboring ethnic groups, the Mursi have recently developed a practice of buying AK-47 machine guns with the money the women receive for posing for tourist photos. Serious casualties from ethnic spats are no longer unusual. In addition to volunteering for snapshots, many women have decided to shirk their pastoralist duties in order to make extra lip-plates and jewelry for the occasional souvenir-hungry tourist. The National Tour Operator (NTO) plans to greatly expand its package tours and "photo safaris" to visit the remote Mursi. According to local government guide Kumngar Wolde, tourists find the lip plates "strange and funny to look at but good to photograph." In addition to building a road through Mursi territory, NTO is also considering to relocate some Mursi women to more accessible "tourist-friendly" areas, as far as 40 kilometers from their original villages.

With the charred remains of the civil war now quiet and cooling, the women of Ethiopia can focus on the challenges their communities face in this new post-war era. Though the challenges vary, the commitment is encouragingly similar. Today, women from every pocket of Ethiopia's beautifully inconsistent landscape refuse to spectate the dynamic change occurring in their communities. From within the neglected savannahs of the nation's remotest borders to the crowded pavement that snakes through the capital, Ethiopian women are becoming increasingly adept in shaping their future, and as a result, the future of their nation. "I want to leave this plastic house," Secareda says when my interview is finished. "I want to go to school so I can have my own business like my father had before the war. I want to change the way I live here."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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