Harmful Traditional Practices in Ethiopia

By Alemtsehay Zergaw

On International Women’s Day, the World YWCA participated in many exciting and inspiring events. Alemtsehay Zergaw, Programme Associate, Communications, from the YWCA of Ethiopia, participated in one of these events. Alemtsehay gave a speech at a side event at the XVI Human Rights Council on violence against children as a result of harmful traditional practices. Alem shares the speech with us.

About 3200 miles from here, a girl is born to a remote rural family in Ethiopia. Her name is Amarech which means beautiful.  From the very beginning of her coming to the world, she is coldly received in a tradition where the high expectation was for a baby boy that is normally perceived as a source of honour and an assurance of the continuity of the family line.

Before she is 3 year old, she will have to endure a painful traditional genital mutilation practice with the full consent, and often presence, of her own parents. She will be raised with the mindset that she lives to serve a man, to give him a baby and to serve him in the house. She will then grow up in the house carrying the burden of cleaning the house, fetching water on her back from a river a few miles away, cooking food for the family, domestic tasks which are normally considered the necessary tasks of a girl in a house hold. She may as well endure rape and abuse by men while fetching water or going to school.  When she is 7, her parents will force her to marry an old man. If by any chance her parents haven’t agreed to give her to an older man, she could be abducted and forced into marriage anyway. She will end up in early marriage with an old man and face early pregnancy.  Early pregnancy complicates her health and she could face fistula problems. There are no clinics to go to. And she doesn’t have money. If she feels strong and gets bitter and escapes the early marriage, she then ends up in a big city. She doesn’t know anyone in the city and so she has to make money to avoid ending up on the streets. She may end up working as a domestic maid, endlessly, for a very small salary or as a sex worker. In the latter case, she will be at higher risk of HIV infection and of dying of AIDS related illness due to a lack of treatment and good nutrition.

Such is the life of the girl child in a typical small remote rural town in Ethiopia. Long upheld traditional social values and practices continue to discriminate and act as violence against girls like Amarech. These practices are continued even after by some community and faith leaders. I will briefly explain some of these practices, and end with a brief summary of what the YWCA of Ethiopia has been doing to tackle some of those problems. As exemplified in Amarech’s life story, some of the traditional harmful practices in Ethiopia include: a traditional preference for a son, female genital mutilation (FGM), early and forced marriage, marriage by abduction, encouraging girls to be silent and subservient, shouldering domestic tasks on the girl, etc.  The preference of having a son preference involves favouring the social, intellectual and physical development of a boy child over that of a girl child. Most of the time girls are required to quit school in order to take care of the household chores, or they are prevented from engaging in games and other activities with peers in order to stay home and supervise younger siblings. Girls are reduced to domestic labours both during childhood, and later in marriage.

Early marriage and abduction is common in Ethiopia, especially in rural settings whereby girls between the ages of 7 to 18 are often already married before the girl is physically, physiologically and psychologically ready to shoulder the responsibilities of marriage and child bearing, and many do not have access to basic sexual and reproductive health information or services. Complications from early marriage are deadly for a girl, one of them being complications from early pregnancy. Many girls attempt to escape this practice imposed on them by running away to big cities from rural parts of the country. Either they run away from early marriage or their parents send them to the city to work because they are poor. These children come to the capital with no preparation and no support. Most of them are hired as a domestic workers or sex workers or end up living on the street.

At the YWCA of Ethiopia, we offer support to young domestic house workers who are migrating from rural parts of Ethiopia. These teenage girls are often under the control of their employers, and they are paid very little money or even worse, no wage at all for their labour. Many of them send what little they have earned to their relatives in the countryside, leaving them empty handed by the end of the day. Having nothing in their hand, no education, nowhere to go, they have to stay serving their employers forever, or face a challenging life ahead if they run away from their employers. Once they escape, then they are exposed to rape, abuse, beating, street pregnancy, STI and HIV. It is very common to see teenage mothers on the street of Addis Ababa. They don’t know their rights or what is happening to their bodies, and they have no access to violence related service and SRH information.

At the YWCA of Ethiopia, we train these young women and their employers separately to build awareness on violence, coercion, peer pressure, sexual and reproductive health and sanitation for the benefit of young women and girls that are employed. By building support systems and financial skills, at least in the cities, the YWCA of Ethiopia attempts to offer a bit of hope for these girls and young women facing dire circumstances throughout their life time. These efforts in Ethiopia are supported by the World YWCA’s global advocacy and monitor the implementation of key international agreements on gender equality and the human right of women and girls, as well as encouraging faith communities to challenge religious and cultural norms that are harmful to girls and young women.

I thank you for the opportunity to share with you few words about these problems on this special day for women.  It is special because this year marks 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. I feel glad that I have had the chance to make Amarech part of a historic event where people around the world converse about the challenges and celebrate the life of women and girls.  I would like to mention that, while violence against children due to harmful traditional practices in Ethiopia is by no means harmful to girls only, girls are more exposed to violence due to social and cultural norms.

We must change these practices, and for this to happen leaders at all levels – religious leaders, government, community elders and civil society, must condemn harmful practices against the girl child.

Amarech means beautiful. I hope she has a life as good as her name!

My Galapagos Syndrome

By Aki Yoshida

Aki Yoshida from the YWCA of Japan was one of the YWCA Delegates at CSW 55. She shares her thoughts and experience.

Aki Yoshida


Have you ever heard of the term “Galapagos syndrome” or “Galapagosization?” It refers to a phenomenon in which Japanese products such as mobile phones have evolved isolated from the rest of the world despite their superior quality and advanced technology, just like endemic Galapagos Islands animals. Well, that sums up my first-ever CSW experience.

Being the only country to have suffered from two atomic bombings, while at the same time to have caused tremendous damage and pain to the neighbouring countries during its wartime aggression, the YWCA of Japan puts priority on achieving peace without nuclear technology, promoting the principle of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution that renounces war as a means of settling international disputes, and peacemaking in Northeast Asia. These issues are without doubt important and we are also committed to capacity building of young women leaders and championing and protecting women’s and children’s rights at both local and national levels, yet I have realized our main focus on peace is not quite in sync with the World YWCA’s global agenda like violence against women, HIV and AIDS, SCR1325, and intergenerational leadership.

The same goes for Japan’s parallel event on empowerment of women in rural Japan. Accounts and analyses of current situations and challenges of Japanese women from different sectors were certainly thought-provoking, but more importantly how can we translate these into global action? Unlike Finland’s or South Korea’s events, there were no international guests on the panel or international dialogue on the theme.

I know you are thinking, “Look who’s talking?” Yes, I was shy and always sticking with fellow Japanese and avoiding speaking up in front of others. I need improvement in English, self-assertiveness, self-confidence, and above all, leadership. I must change my Galapagos mindset and break the mold to work effectively in a global team environment.

I am privileged to have been a part of this year’s CSW 55 team. It was amazing and inspiring to see all of the YWCA Delegates work seamlessly as a truly international and intergenerational team and to see so many young women confidently taking initiative in workshops and the worship. I have returned home safe and sound with a lot of fond memories, from the UN Women launch event and our worship, to a visit to the YWCA Brooklyn. I was also able to broaden and deepen my understanding of trafficking in women and children, which is my area of interest, by attending many parallel events on the subject from different perspectives: commercial sexual exploitation of children, Nordic models of combating sex trafficking, migrant women and domestic violence, and the never-ending controversy over the issue of sex workers. After all Japan is one of the few industrialized countries placed in Tier 2 in the 2010 U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report. So much still needs to be done.

I wish, once more, to thank everyone on the team.

Arigato (thank you) and Matane (see you again)!

From the Happy Solomon Islands to Beautiful Geneva

By Jenta Tau

Jenta Tau from the YWCA of Solomon Islands is one of  the new World YWCA intern for 2011. She shares with us her thoughts and her experience in Geneva at the World Office.

Jenta Tau, YWCA Solomon Islands

Hello, Bonjour and Gud fala da lo ufala evriwan.

I have recently arrived to Geneva. I left Honiara, Solomon Islands, and travelled for three days (by plane) to finally reach Geneva and begin my one-year internship with the World YWCA. The opportunity to travel this far to a foreign land was just a miracle to me!

Geneva is completely different from the Solomon Islands. To begin with, Geneva has 4 different seasons, which is very unusual for me. When I arrived, Geneva welcomed me with a freezing winter kiss, and I wrapped myself tightly in my warm coat.  Imagine coming to a real winter after spending your whole life experiencing humidity, rain and hot weather all year long!

There is also a very big difference in terms of food, culture, architecture, living standards and the lifestyle. Geneva is known for being a unique and very diverse multicultural city. It is well organised and developed in terms of infrastructure. It is a wealthy city, filled with international organisations and banks. It is also an expensive city. The people, too, are different from what I am used to. They are formal and everyone is on time. In my culture people are more relaxed about time, but here if you are 1 minute late, then you are late! So, I am learning to walk fast and to pay close attention to the time.

Joining and becoming part of a new family – the World YWCA Office in Geneva – has been a wonderful experience for me.  I have felt very welcome and I do feel that this place really is a safe space, a space that will allow me room to grow, yet will be with me every step of the way, offering care and support as I need it. I am excited to share what I know and I am excited to learn and to contribute to the work of the World Office.

This year the World YWCA is working on a very tight schedule and a heavy work load as we prepare for the World Council and International Women’s Summit in Zurich, Switzerland, in July 2011. It is sometimes challenging to keep up with all the many activities and new developments, but always the morale and camaraderie is present and the staff members work together with a good team spirit.

I am excited about the many important events that I will participate in during my time in Geneva. One such event is International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8. The World Office will be celebrating this day and will stand in solidarity with its international partners, stakeholders and friends. The World Office is organising a Reception to celebrate the 100th anniversary of IWD, and I am looking forward to meeting the friends and partners of the YWCA, to building relationships and strengthening networks.

Although I have been here a little over a month, my experience at the World Office in Geneva thus far has already been a great blessing. It is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe and to learn from the expertise of these great women leaders, and to be able to do so in a safe and nurturing space is also special. Everyday here, both at work and out, I am learning new things, and while I know that there will be many challenges, I am sure that this will be a very productive and meaningful year for me.