Dr Wossen Argaw is an education specialist and Deputy Director of CHADET. She has worked in gender and education for 15 years, advocating for girls’ rights and addressing the barriers girls face in education. Over her career, Dr Wossen has supported over 16,000 girls to receive a quality education in Ethiopia and in amplifying their voices through girl-led community groups. She has challenged and overturned early-marriages, rallying government ministries, community, and religious leaders.
"I joined CHADET during the Girls Education Challenge (GEC) as an education consultant, that was back in 2015 when the first phase of the programme was coming to an end. We were writing up the project objectives for the second phase of GEC, GEC T or GEC transition, which, as you know, is more challenging than GEC 1. Then, I became a full timer here in CHADET.
I really enjoy my work, advising and contributing to education of girls. I have always been interested in girls’ education and working against the inequalities experienced by girls and women. My background and research interest are on gender and education, specifically gender in higher education. It was the focus of my dissertation, institutional culture as a barrier for girls' education, specifically at the higher level of institutions in the context of my country. I had already interest and had worked in barriers of education and gender. So, it was a very good opportunity for me to fully engage in a project such as GEC."
Why was GEC T more challenging than GEC 1?
"During GEC 1 the focus was on improving learning outcomes, getting girls to enrol in school, and maintaining attendance. With GEC T, you have the struggle to keep girls in school, make sure they are thriving, and that they are continuously transition from one cycle of education to the next. Assuring that the girls are continuously transitioned from grade to grade, from lower level of education to higher level of education, from higher level of education into jobs, makes it tough. The circumstance in which we’re functioning in become harder.
Educating a girl to grade 8 may not be that difficult but to continue to high school then to higher education, that is a big part of the challenge. The girls come from extremely underprivileged backgrounds. It makes it really tough because you are working with girls from economically underprivileged families as well as working in remote schools and rural areas. In these settings, the cultural economic problems are much worse. Such factors make it really challenging."
You said it is more challenging the older girl gets or the further the girls get into their education but that the further they get into their education it becomes harder. What do you perceive as some of the reasons for that?
"There are various cultural barriers and practical challenges these girls face as they transition from primary to secondary. Most rural schools are in the villages; if a girl has to go to secondary school, she may have to leave her village. Now she is confronted by a number of challenges. She may not be able to live with her family or close relatives. She may have to start living an independent life very early. There are also challenges of moving into an urban setting, the psychological preparedness of the girls in urban life and the responsibility of taking care of their own physical and psychological needs, food, clothing, shelter, and support. The more the girl grows, and the further she transitions through education, the more challenges she faces.
Maybe it is similar in other areas of the world as well, but girls’ education in Ethiopia comes with many cultural challenges. There is the issue of early marriage and abduction. As they progress through education, they usually have to travel longer distances to school; their walk to school is longer. This put them at higher risk of abduction.
I remember the girls when I was in university, they are really the toughest girls who make it to the university. I know they might have overcome hurdles to reach higher education, but the problem doesn’t end there, it doesn’t come to an end in higher education. The challenges continue, they face new challenges, that are different than what men and boys would face."
What has been some of the greatest impacts you have seen come from the programme?
"It is education. The whole world agrees that educating people really impacts people lives. Basically, for the economic benefits of education but beyond the economic benefits of education, I would say the value attached to someone when they are educated. It goes with your self-worth, your social status, it supports with you all kinds of negotiation in life. How one negotiates in the world system. Even if education is only one resource, it really contributes to the development of a person. It’s part of your status, it supports you with your life decisions. If you're educated you can make your life decisions by your own; you have more agency. Education comes with several things, and I feel that though GEC we have been able to achieve that.
To build on the skills of underprivileged groups of learners, girls, rural girls specifically, girls from families of very low social economic backgrounds, girls from families of farmers, girls from families of single parents, girls with disabilities. We have been supporting not just girls but very special groups of girls who are more in need, who have not had the chance for education or a better life and better hopes in their lives.
This is what makes this project very impactful. It is a pleasure for us to engage in such an impactful and moral project. I always love to mention the moral aspect of this work, you can do anything, you can earn money, but to us it is beyond a job, to me and people like me, I think for most educators. The job of education is beyond a job, beyond a career, beyond the earnings. The moral value I attach to this job has been tremendous."
"Also, the degree of involvement from the girls, families, communities, schools, and different bodies of government we are working with. In GEC T we have tried to involve these groups more, gradually handing over what we were doing ourselves in GEC 1. We have put a strategy in place to hand it over to the local stakeholders. We have been focusing on involving the parents, the communities, school leaders, school principals, and the minister of education. We feel confident that these project initiatives will remain after the project phases out."
What has been a big personal achievement through the GEC programme?
"It is about building up and empowering people. Empowering the underprivileged. That is wonderful. I can relate it to my previous experience. I was the founder of the gender office of my university, and I chose to support and have engaged with girls’ education for a long time. But sometimes you feel it is late to start supporting a girl when she is in university even though she has crossed hurdles. It is really important to support people while they are young, while they are in school.
There is an opportunity to support girls who become role models for other girls. At the beginning of the project, maybe there weren’t so many girls coming out to the blackboard and solving mathematical problems, but over the years, we have started to see more girls coming up to the front. We are seeing active class participation. I think this is very important. These girls are role models for their classes and for their communities as well. When they become adults, I think they will keep that strong self-worth. It is not just an education programme, but it is also about life skills of girls and there is a strong safeguarding component too, that directly or indirectly support girls."
"I take the issue of early marriage personally. It is a problem against girls, young girls, who have not
How did CHADET respond to COVID-19?
"While COVID-19 has been an international pandemic, here in Ethiopia it has been difficult, especially if you consider the situation with the girls. COVID-19 and the closing of schools has been a horrible experience for them and for all of us, the degree and intensity of the pain and unhappiness these girls experienced is immense compared to other groups of people. The idea of school for girls in context of rural areas is a place where the girls get relief from hard work, from household chores, and where they meet friends. It is a really enjoyable place for the girls, this is what they have told us when we have interviewed some of the girls."
"When the lockdown began here in Ethiopia, we started conversations with Colin, ChildHope's Education Partnerships Advisor, ChildHope, and CHADET to see what we could do and what possible ways there were to support the girls and keep the project moving. We came up
with ideas to provide worksheets, sanitary materials, and
information about the virus itself. I think this is one of our key achievements.
We feel that we responded much better and much earlier than other Non-Governmental Organisations. We were able to quickly provide handouts to the girls and they were happy to see us. I was fortunate to go to one of the project areas and visit the girls, they were very happy and excited to see us. They realised that there was someone, that CHADET and the project, were thinking of them. It was very important. We supported them and we distributed the handouts, they completed the handouts and returned them. We tried to evaluate the girls and managed to send out a second round of worksheets. We were also able to interview some of the girls, earlier during the distribution of handouts and later during the second distribution. We learned that the girls were feeling better after we sent out support; after we had distributed soaps, the sanitary towels, and the worksheets. I think this is a big achievement for us.
Even for CHADET and ChildHope, this pandemic has greatly affected our daily routines and life. We have found it has been a learning. We have still been able to do things, facilitating activities in the project via technology. This has been great; it has been an opportunity. We have been able to meet frequently with the ChildHope staff and among ourselves at CHADET, organising weekly meetings and catch ups. We have changed our modality of communication and evaluation of work. This has been a positive from this experience for us."
What are some of the impacts and challenges of working with a partner in the UK?
"Our partnership has been a journey. Before Colin and the current staff joined ChildHope, we were working with other groups of people. I see it as a journey that has been continuously developing for the better. Our relationship, our partnership, has improved, very much.
Especially during GEC T, ChildHope and CHADET had have a very good relationship. I call it a tandem partnership. They have a strategic project manager, we have project manager here. They have an education specialist, my friend Colin, and I fill the role of education coordinator out of my personal passion and interest in education, and my background. It is important for each position in the CHADET team to have a colleague in the ChildHope team, for communication and support."
"One good thing for us during GEC T has been having this group of ChildHope colleagues frequently come and visit us. You can sit in London or in Paris and just write anything but to actually experience the context, experience what anthropologists call ‘going native’ or through our native eyes is important in terms of understanding the context and in terms of supporting us in a way that is more productive and more effective. The regular visits were really helpful, before the Coronavirus. I know some people are waiting to run back to Ethiopia.
They provide technical support that is extremely important. The official communication is between ChildHope and the fund manager, that has really eased pressure from us. We first discuss issues among ourselves internally as CHADET, and as CHADET and ChildHope. Issues that are raised, for example the issues with finance, have reduced. ChildHope has really helped us with the relations between us and PWC and the fund manager, with all the communication. It is important when you have good communication you achieve better than not having good communication.
We have really grown together and achieved a very good partnership that is on a path of continuous development. We have grown not just as partners or as a business partnership, but as friends and I think that is very important."
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