Sofia, 14, has a friendly smile and an air of confidence. She is the chairperson of the student parliament in her school in central Ethiopia. When she grows up, she hopes to be a doctor. But not long ago, this dream was about to disappear.
Sofia’s stepfather and her mother wanted to send her to Saudi Arabia or another foreign country to work. They felt her income was needed to support the family, and this had a higher priority than her education. Sofia however, managed to hold her ground. She had learned about the importance of education and the dangers connected with child migration in her youth club in school.
Sofia spoke to her siblings and her teacher, who in turn spoke to her parents — and managed to change their minds. It was a close call because her stepfather had already arranged a false identity card stating her age as 18, and an application for a passport was the next step.
The situation could have turned out very differently had Sofia’s school not been taking part in a three-year project working against harmful traditional practices (HTPs), including female circumcision, child marriage, heavy and dangerous child labour and child migration. Barnfonden (ChildFund Sweden…a member of the ChildFund Alliance) is supporting the project, which is being carried out by local partner organisation, the Aynage Children and Family Development Organization (ACFDO). The programme is being is carrying out in 41 communities in Ethiopia like Sofia’s.
Hundreds of village leaders, health workers, local officials, religious leaders and school headmasters are part of this project, which is aimed at changing attitudes and behaviours through information and education. The goal is to reach 20,000 children and youths, to increase their knowledge and awareness of the consequences of HTPs.
These practices, particularly female circumcision, early marriage and abduction, are highly prevalent in the area partly due to perceptions, culture and religious practices that have been deeply rooted for centuries. ACFDO works with local women’s groups, youth groups, traditional and religious leaders groups and community leaders to launch conversations about HTPs. The resulting change in attitude and perception helps prevent and respond to female circumcision, early marriage, abduction, rape, and sexual assault.
ACFDO also helps communities create Child Protection Committees, comprising members who know how to network with responsible government offices and services. They create a referral linkage with the local women’s and children’s affairs office, law enforcement bodies, schools and others, to ensure that HTPs in their community are reported, appropriately referred and dealt with.
In Sofia’s case, her rescue started with her youth club: Because she had been learning about risks of migration and other HTPs, she knew to ask for help. Her teacher, as part of the larger culture of her school that was being transformed by the project, stepped in before things went too far; if the teacher had been unable to convince Sofia’s parents otherwise, thanks to the project, he would have known which authority to approach next.
Community leaders have now committed to do their level best to make their communities free of harmful traditional practices and gender-based violence. Students, especially girls, are carrying the message outside of their schools, and they’re reporting openly to their club leaders, women teachers and school principals whenever they face abuse.
Together, the people of 41 communities in central Ethiopia are creating a culture of protection for children, where children feel empowered to ask for help and even to educate others. And that’s why Sofia still has a chance to achieve that dream of becoming a doctor … or whatever new dreams her safety makes possible.
Sofia’s story was adapted from a blog post by Carolina Ehrenrooth, Secretary General of Barnfonden, one of ChildFund International’s fellow members of ChildFund Alliance.