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Global Problems Can be Solved


A 12-year-old's 18-hour work day

November 24, 2009

Elizabeth McKee Gore, the UN Foundation’s executive director of global partnerships, just wrapped up an extensive trip to Ethiopia, which brought her from rural villages to urban centers to everywhere in between. And while it’s hard to re-create such a dynamic trip in words, Elizabeth is doing exactly that with a blog series on her incredible experiences.

Elizabeth’s on-the-ground stories capture just how far the work of the UN Foundation and its UN partners reaches, whether in health or education, refugees or adolescent girls, peacekeeping or clean water. Take a minute to read these posts, and learn how the United Nations Foundation is creating a more peaceful, prosperous, and just world. (Read the third post here.)




In a small one-room education center next to the bus stop in a slum in Addis Ababa, I met seven little girls who impacted me more in a few hours of talking than has any other day in my entire career. I can honestly say that a little piece of my soul is still sitting in the palm of the hand of a girl named Zusiash Mersha.

The Biruh Tesfa project, facilitated by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), is funded by the UN Foundation and the Nike Foundation. Ethiopia has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world, with more than half of girls married off before the age of 15. Some girls run away and find a bus to Addis Ababa, escaping with the hope they will find a better life with more opportunities and economic prosperity waiting for them there.

But when these girls get off the bus in Addis, they step into an environment where -- since they often are unable to read or write and have no money -- they are stuck. Waiting for them are seemingly helpful individuals called brokers who offer them jobs, a place to sleep, and food. These brokers put the girls in labor-intensive jobs such as domestic work, or worse yet, force them into becoming sex workers. The girls vary from ages 7 to 18.

In response to this need, the Biruh Tesfa project sends mentors -- young women who are community leaders -- to find the girls and convince their employers to let the girls participate in a non-formal education program at their local center  for just two hours a day. Aynalen Kibebew, a mentor for the program, said the hardest part of her job is convincing employers to let them leave for this short amount of time.

When girls arrive at the center, they find people who care. The girls receive a number of services, including literacy training,  health checks, assistance obtaining government identification cards, and someone who checks on the girls to make sure they are not subjected to violence within the homes and in the city.

More than 600 girls are now moving through the program. We had the opportunity to visit with seven of them.

Extremely shy at first, these girls took a while to warm up to us. Once they did, they began to share stories that would make our afterschool specials look trivial. Senait Bergene, 11, was so shy I had to tickle her to get a sound out of her. She shared very quietly with us that she was a sex worker when she first arrived in the city. One of the mentors found her and quickly helped get her into domestic work.

She now gets to go to school and see girls her own age. Most of the time, these girls may spend years working in one home without ever interacting with anyone outside the walls. When I asked all of them if they ever get to play, none of the girls understood that question.

Habtamu Demele, the local coordinator of the program, was proud to tell me that they now have a formal relationship with the government, and 220 girls are now in formal primary school night classes. Most girls still have to work all day before their employers will let them go to school at night.

We asked if any of the girls were willing to share a description of  her normal day. Zusiash Mersha stood up to talk. Only 12 years old, she says she wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to start work at 6 a.m. She provides breakfast for her employer and then cleans until 2:30 p.m.

At 2:30 pm., she is allowed to go straight to the center until 5 p.m. She said that this is the best part of her day. She then has to return to the house and work for her employer’s bus station motel from 6 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. At 1:30, she tries to read as much as she can to educate herself before she falls asleep.

Zusiash was the only girl who never smiled by the end of our day together. I can’t stop thinking about her, and I am so thankful that she at least has the Biruh Tesfa program for two hours of her 18-hour work day. With more resources and more awareness, we can support these seven girls and thousands like them. I will forever think of Zusiash Mersha; she is the inspiration for all of my work in the future.

To learn more about these girls and how to support them, visit the UN Foundation's Girl Up campaign.

* Photo credit: David Evans