IN 1979, Eritrea was in the middle of its battle for independence. During this time education was seen as essential to build the social capital of the Eritrean community, as a key principle of social justice and a human right. However, parents would only send boys to school.
On a recent trip to Eritrea to pilot a new Gender Analysis Tool (prepared by the Global Partnership for Education and the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative) to analyze whether countries are on track to achieve gender equality in education, we had the pleasure of meeting four dynamic women who lived through this difficult time: Luul Gebreab, President of of the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW); Tsega Gaim Misgun, Director General for Social Service; Worku Zerai, an international consultant; and Mhret Iyob, Director General of the UNESCO National Commission for Eritrea.
These four women are founding members of the NUEW, a grassroots organization established in 1979, dedicated to improving the status of Eritrean women.
Giving parents an ultimatum
During the time of the battle for independence, these four women fought behind the trenches to ensure all children had access to education. They created make-shift schools, disseminated political messages and organized supporters. When make-shift classrooms under trees were bombed, schools were moved into caves and eventually simple structures were built and classes were taught with minimal supplies and learning materials. Despite progress, girls were being excluded from education.
A teacher at the time, Tsega Gaim Misgun, took matters into her own hands.
“I told the parents to send their daughters to school, but no one would listen. But I gave them an ultimatum. Bring your daughters by 10.00 this morning, or I will close the school.”
Parents then started bringing their daughters to school and realized the importance of education.
Now when these four women travel through Eritrea, they are recognized by their former students who work in all professions. “This is our proudest accomplishment—to see girls and boys we taught and mentored in professional positions. One girl became a pilot in the air force, another a high profile journalist.”
Three Innovative Ways to Ensure Girls Are Educated
NUEW’s main focus is to coordinate gender issues, mainstream gender and advocate for the cause of Eritrean women. Over the years, NUEW has directly designed and implemented projects and activities to increase access education and training; formulate programs to promote women’s literacy; and improve community attitudes for girls’ education. Three innovative examples are highlighted below:
There was a high drop-out rate for girls in the Debre Bizen Secondary School near the town of Nefasit, largely due the distance of the school from their homes. NUEW selected 118 girls who travel more than nine kilometers to be part of a project where 60 girls received bicycles. Of those, 55 completed secondary school and took the matriculation exam.
2. Donkeys and canvas water tanks
NUEW helped to introduce measures to bring more girls into school by providing over 10,000 families with donkeys. In this project, women in rural areas were provided a donkey and canvas water tank. As a result, thousands of girls were able to go to school rather than fetch water. The project also helped with gender roles as boys and men started using the donkey and shared in the water fetching activities.
3. Engage Communities
The rates of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Eritrea are very high—83% of females nationally have been cut; under the age of 15 rates have reduced to under 15%. In order to engage communities about this harmful and painful practice, the Ministry of Health developed a film and started an advocacy drive to show the film across the country to students and their families. Eventually villages started public declarations against FGM.
NUEW helped create reproductive and gender committees all over the country, which included equal numbers of men and women, girls and boys from the communities. NUEW developed and presented the President of Eritrea with a report on the devastating effects of FGM and encouraged the government to pass legislation against the practice. In 2007, the law was approved but remained difficult to enforce. The NUEW committees get the communities involved and as a result, over 900 cases have been reported to the police since 2007.
These dynamic and courageous women have led the way for other girls and young women to make a difference not only to gender equality in education, but for the whole nation of Eritrea.
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KOLI BANIK is a Senior Education Advisor at the Bureau for Africa -USAID and LYNDSAY BIRD is a Program Specialist at IIEP/UNESCO