Ethiopian advocate for educating girls brings message to Tacoma

Staff writerMay 19, 2014 

Selamawit Adugna Bekele explains the complex issues surrounding the recent kidnapping of more than 270 Nigerian schoolgirls by Islamist extremists with a simple statement.

“There is nothing that intimidates them more than an educated girl,” 25-year-old Bekele said of Boko Haram, the group claiming responsibility for the kidnapping.

The girls, still missing, were taken April 14 from a school in Chibok, a remote northeast area of the country.

Bekele, a teacher turned education advocate from Ethiopia, visited Tacoma last week as part of her travels around the United States. She is encouraging the Obama administration to pledge $250 million for the next two years to the Global Partnership for Education.

The coalition of developing countries, donor governments and other groups will have a conference in June, when participating groups will make their pledges.

The partnership has significantly improved education in her country, said Bekele, an ambassador for the international advocacy group A World at School and a member of the Young Women’s Advocacy Group for the African Union.

The anti-poverty group RESULTS hosted her while she was in Tacoma.

Bekele – whose work goes beyond Ethiopia to Nigeria and to Africa at large – answered reporter’s questions last week before a Tacoma chapter meeting of RESULTS.

Q: Why are you in Tacoma?

A: I’m here to make education the priority, and to ask citizens of Tacoma to bring that issue to the (Obama) administration. To think about it. I’m from Ethiopia. We know what the issues in our communities are — conflict areas, poverty-stricken areas.

Q: What are the obstacles to education in Ethiopia?

A: I have seen a lot of challenges in Ethiopia to children being able to access education, because of infrastructure. There’s a big patriarchal system that gives less value to girls’ education. (Parents), they don’t have what it takes to get their children to school. No one is going to provide notebooks for you. Poverty, unwanted pregnancy, early marriage. In Ethiopia, one in five girls get married by the age of 15. They are issues that we share with other Africans.

Q: What’s the solution?

A: The basic thing we have to do is (establish) comprehensive, quality basic education. It’s not just about finishing school, it’s about being a change-maker. Building the self confidence of a girl. An education, that’s going toward a girl saying no to the violence — emotional violence, physical violence, violence at school.

Q: How is the work you do related to the kidnapping in Nigeria?

A: (Kidnappings have) been happening before. There is nothing that intimidates (Boko Haram) more than an educated girl. The basic thing for development is a girl’s education (which Boko Haram opposes). Nigeria is not alone. We have to work really hard in changing how society thinks.

Q: What should Tacomans, who might have just become acquainted with this issue from the news of the kidnappings, know about the education challenges Africa faces?

A: What they should know is a lot is happening and has been happening toward education. There are more than 57 million children out of school (in the world). Nigeria has more than 10 million children out of school. Schools have to be safe. Every change we want to bring in Africa, the solution is education. When children are educated, they get to get out of conflict. You can link that to Nigeria. The conflict is going to go on unless we work hard to educate children. You see how the world is craving for it. This is the time.

Q: How has the Global Partnership for Education benefited your country?

A: (The number of) schools have doubled from 11,000 to over 36,000 since Ethiopia joined the GPE (in 2004).

Q: What is your education history?

A: My parents are unlike most. They value education. My dad sees education as a basic, basic thing. I finished my undergraduate degree at 17, and started as a teacher at 18. I saw the struggles my students were facing. I finished my master’s degree in gender and development. I am the exception.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268 alexis.krell@ thenewstribune.com

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