“We walk for hours every day to get water. Because of this, I couldn’t attend class and was forced to drop out. Now I don’t know what my future will be.”
These are the words of Dawele, a 14-year-old girl I met in Ethiopia. Her troubles mirror those faced by thousands of other girls across the country.
Ethiopia is currently gripped by the worst drought it has experienced for 30 years, leaving over 10 million people in need of food assistance*. Two failed rainy seasons in a row have had catastrophic implications for girls, who are among the worst affected by disasters.
Support the East Africa food crisis appeal The drought means many Ethiopian families face a daily struggle to find enough food and water to survive. With lives at stake and despite the considerable work of the government, girls are often the first to be pulled out of school to help their families fetch water, take care of younger siblings or tend to livestock.
Girls’ safety at risk
Dropping out of school puts girls’ futures at risk but it also causes immediate dangers to their safety. Instead of being in the relative safety of their schools, the drought has meant girls have to walk unsupervised for long distances to collect water or are left at home alone while their parents are looking for food. In addition, many families are becoming separated as the search for water or land for their livestock to graze becomes further and wider.
All of these factors place girls at higher risk of physical and sexual abuse, child marriage, teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Sebontu, 14, walks for hours on her own each day to collect water for her family. This means she rarely makes it to school and is at risk of abuse. “It is very difficult to manage these challenges without our parents’ protection,” she says. “We all feel under threat during these times.”
Clearly then, a key element of the international response to this crisis must be to keep girls in school.
Understanding the impact of drought
Earlier this year I joined an annual government assessment that evaluates the impact of drought on communities living in high-risk areas.
This is the first time the impact of drought on education in Ethiopia has been measured – it is certainly a welcome and positive step. As part of the Belg Assessment, as it is known, I collected information about the issues children are facing in getting an education due to the drought.
Dropping out of school puts girls’ futures at risk but it also causes immediate dangers to their safety.
Beyond the issues that I have already written about, menstrual hygiene management was also raised as a key concern. A lack of sanitary pads and safe, hygienic facilities in which to manage their periods can cause girls to miss several days of school each month, meaning they fall behind their classmates and feel less inclined to return.
In addition, the lack of food and water are affecting the performance of children who are able to remain in school. Despite work from the government and the World Food Programme, school feeding programmes are no longer universally available and children often come to school having barely eaten. One head teacher I spoke to said, “School feeding and nourishment is very important. The students are frequently hungry and many of them faint at school.”
Keeping girls in school
The assessment raised some key issues that need to be urgently addressed. The results have been used to improve the Ethiopian government’s drought response plan with the support of Plan International.
The findings are also being used to improve our own programmes and ensure we, as well as our partners, are targeting those most in need and taking into account key conclusions such as the need to support girls’ menstrual hygiene management.
Our response will continue to provide lifesaving food, water, livestock and seeds to help communities survive. We’re also providing school materials, new buildings, safe spaces, hygienic toilets for boys and girls, and provisions to help girls manage their periods, to support girls to stay in school.
During my time in Ethiopia I have seen how the education system is struggling to stay afloat in the midst of a crippling drought. The government requires both financial and technical assistance to ensure that thousands of girls’ futures aren’t lost to this emergency.
I hope the international community will pay attention and be more proactive in its support for the education that girls in Ethiopia desperately need.
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