Three years ago, we embarked on a partnership with the Girls Gotta Run Foundation (GGRF) to help them pilot a girls’ Athletic Scholarship program in Sodo, Ethiopia. 15 adolescent girls from the Abba Pascal Girls School were recruited to join a running team, where they would train together three times a week after school, and then participate in a life skills program on Saturdays.
This year, all 15 girls graduated from the program. All are continuing with their education, and all are no longer at risk of early marriage. Three of the girls have actually opted to continue into the 11th and 12th grade which is the equivalent of pre-college studies in Ethiopia – only a very small percentage of women complete this level of education in the country.
Importantly, the girls’ much improved self confidence, their academic successes and their maturity as individuals have shown their families and communities the immense benefits available to girls and their families, if they stay in school.
Each of the girls, much like many of their peers, was at risk of child (or early) marriage – a problem that is endemic throughout Ethiopia. Girls as young as 10, are taken out of school and married off, usually to much older men. Once this happens, their education is completely stalled, they are isolated from friends and family, and expected to start having children (even while still being children themselves, and often at great risk to their health). What this amounts to is a cruel stunting of any and all opportunities to develop their intellect and abilities, and realize their potential as they grow into adults. Child marriage is a very complex, socio-economic and cultural challenge that affects many countries. In Ethiopia, although the government has outlawed marriage before the age of 18, the practice continues largely due to traditional norms, poverty and fear of violence. [Read more about child marriage here and here.]
The Athletic Scholarship Program
Running, Ethiopia’s national sport and culturally acceptable for both men and women to practice, is being used as an ‘entry-point’ to work with disadvantaged girls. It offers a culturally relevant, low cost, high impact means of creating safe spaces for girls to develop self confidence, identify role models (such as Ethiopia’s female running champions), form a peer support network, and identify and reach personal goals. The running team the girls join is complemented by a life skills curriculum which includes topics such as nutrition, family planning, financial literacy, health and healthy relationships, and leadership.
The GGRF team meets extensively with the families of each girl – and sometimes community leaders as well – to obtain consent, discuss the goals of the program and answer any concerns. A US$600 scholarship is then provided to each girl for a year. This covers a daily healthy meal and snacks after practice, uniforms, school fees and all school supplies, athletic gear, soap, laundry detergent and feminine hygiene products, healthcare for each girl and her mother, and funds to cover mandatory annual academic tests. The scholarships also cover the salaries of an athletics coach and life skills mentor who facilitates the curriculum.
In their second year, the girls act as peer educators to the new cohort of younger girls joining the program. Getting them to teach the life skills curriculum (alongside an adult mentor) offers a way for them to gain leadership experience, and reinforce the important concepts in the curriculum. In turn, the incoming students benefit from the oversight of a female mentor as well as a group of female peers.
In their final year, the girls focus on building their financial literacy and entrepreneurial skills, and further developing their leadership qualities.
Today, the entire Athletic Scholarship Program has expanded to 55 girls in Sodo (in one school) and 35 girls (in two schools) in another region Bekoji, where the program has also involved the girls’ mothers by setting up Savings Groups. In these groups, the women, most of whom run micro-businesses, have obtained business skills training, and started savings and micro-credit schemes to help each other expand their businesses or start new ones.