Abinet Tasew, a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow (MWF) from Ethiopia, joined Rebecca Ojedele, another MWF from Nigeria, to share her work with women’s empowerment and gender equality with the YALI Network. Growing up in Ethiopia, Tasew saw firsthand how gender norms and gender disparity in education kept her own mother from achieving more in life. Drawing from her own life experiences and those of her mother, she is working for gender equality by ensuring that girls in Ethiopia gain access to the educational opportunities they need to succeed.
Tasew currently works as a gender and nutrition adviser for CARE Ethiopia. There, she works on projects that go toward supporting gender and nutrition plans. Along with CARE, Tasew also spends her time volunteering at the YMCA and for the Yellow Movement at Addis Ababa University, where she uses her voice to help empower female students.
One of Tasew’s main priorities is to eliminate the disparity that still exists in educational opportunities for men and women in her community.
She says, “I strongly suggest that families should send their girls to school, and anybody and everybody in different areas should believe in education because we are all products of education. It doesn’t matter which subject matter we have studied. We are all here because of education.”
The YALI Network has helped Tasew connect to others that will ultimately help her achieve her goal of someday opening a boarding school for girls. This dream stems from her desire to eliminate the imbalance that currently exists in providing girls with the opportunity to attend secondary school.
Listen to this podcast to hear more about Tasew’s plan to improve education for women and about the story behind her passion for women’s empowerment.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: Rebecca Ojedele Interviews Abinet Tasew on Gender Equality and Education
Rebecca Ojedele: Hello, young African leaders. This is the YALI Voices Podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network, the YALI Network.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
Ojedele: I’m Rebecca Ojedele, a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow from Lagos, Nigeria. And I’m attending my Civic Leadership Institute at the Presidential Precinct here in Virginia. I’m happy to have you here with me.
I’m joined by another wonderful Mandela Washington Fellow, Abinet Tasew from Ethiopia. And today we’ll be discussing Abinet’s work in women’s empowerment and gender equity. Abinet is a gender and nutrition adviser for CARE Ethiopia, where she focuses on developing and designing concepts, problem identification and casual and problem analysis to support the operation of gender and nutrition strategies and plans.
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So, Abinet, your passion about women’s rights and girls’ education is very, very apparent. I’m sure everyone here knows that. I want you to tell us where your passion comes from? What motivates you to stand for the right of women and girls?
Abinet Tasew: Thank you, Rebecca, for choosing to interview me on women’s rights issues. So my passion about women empowerment and gender equality in general emanated from my mother’s experience. So I was raised by a single mother, and she had to undergo several challenge as a child. She was married when she was only 13 years old. During her first day of marriage she had to flee her husband —
Ojedele: Why did that happen?
Tasew: Well, she was only 13, just like I told you, and she don’t want the marriage. It was arranged by her family. So she had to leave her husband, and she flee. And her father, he took her in, but later on they identified that she was pregnant, so she had to give birth to a baby girl, my sister, the elder one. Then, she was again sent for a man. Another arranged marriage because, for the society, it was not appropriate for a woman to be home without husband.
So she was not a woman per se, but she was just a girl, a little girl with one child. But she was again given to marriage. So she liked this one. He was a very good husband to her, but unfortunately he died after they were able to have my immediate elder sister. So finally when this happened she flee to the city, which is the capital city, Addis Ababa. And her aunt took her in, but not both her children. So she had to give away one of her child to another aunt, which made it very difficult for her to cope with life because, you know, she couldn’t raise them both. So the society, again, would tell you, you know, “If you can get a home where you can stay, you can bring your girls together and you can raise them.”
So for that to happen, since you’re not given education, since you’re not told how to control birth, you have to rely on men. So she was highly advised by her friends, her colleagues. She was engaged in so many things just to raise those two kids up. She was a maid. She tried almost everything in life. Then when she was serving as a day deliverer, she met my father. And they got married.
But unfortunately he was not the husband that she expects him to be. He was no good to her. She had to leave him, even if she was only three months pregnant with me. Again, where does she go? Again, she went back to her family. So pressure again continued, even if she started to feel as the provider for her family’s house as much as she could, but she couldn’t afford it. So, again, that social pressure, a peer pressure. “You need to get that house. You don’t have it. You have to have your girls together, but you don’t have the house.”
So again she happens to marry to another man, who is my little sister’s father who I really adore and love so much. Thanks to him that I really was able to forgive what men did to my mother. He was a very nice man. He took me as his own child. He raised me up. And they give birth to my little sister, but he died unfortunately. Ever since that time my mother never get married because he gave her the home that she wanted all her life. Even if it was a very small house, she managed to keep me and my little sister together. And you know what she did? She made sure that she provided the education that she was denied to us. That’s why me and you are talking here today. It’s because of my mom that I’m here today as a YALI Fellow of 2017. It wouldn’t be possible without her believing in education. She used to tell me, “If you want to take us out from poverty, you need to study hard and you need to study well.”
Ojedele: And you’ve mentioned, your mom sounds like a really strong woman.
Tasew: She is.
Ojedele: She actually reminds me of my own mother as well.
Tasew: Yeah. Most of them are like that, right?
Ojedele: You mentioned a few things in your story. You mentioned education.
Ojedele: You mentioned birth control.
Ojedele: Your mother didn’t have the power or maybe the knowledge to be able to control birth.
Tasew: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ojedele: You mentioned lack of economic power and incapacity.
Tasew: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ojedele: You mentioned cultural pressure.
Ojedele: So how does all of these concepts tie into gender inequality and your experience in the field of your work in Ethiopia?
Tasew: Yes. That’s a very good question actually. So my mother’s story get things together. All those injustices that’s done to women because of the socialization process. So the socialization process in a patriarchal society tells you that you may need to think about who you should send to school.
So if you have a boy and a girl, it’s better to invest in boy’s education than your girl’s education because you’re preparing her for a husband at the end of the day. She’s gonna go to someone’s house and she’s gonna be one of properties for her husband’s family. She is not as an individual in her own right as she should be.
So, you know, starting from providing access to education. I don’t even have to make it about access to education. Let’s start from even the conception of an individual being by a woman. You know there is a saying when you’re pregnant people will start to ask you, “You’re pregnant? Oh, wow. That’s really nice.” Then they will ask you for the sex, “Have you checked? You know now —”
Ojedele: Yeah. “Is it a boy or a girl?”
Ojedele: That happens to us!
Tasew: Right. So because these days there’s technical things, technology can know while it’s in your womb. So they will ask you, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Then you go like, “It’s a girl.” “Oh, it’s fine.” Then you go like, “It’s a boy.” “Oh, that’s really great!” That stereotype will start from conception. There when you just get pregnant.
Ojedele: So there’s that cultural preference.
Ojedele: Even if it’s not expressly stated for the male child.
That brings me to my next question. How do you differentiate gender equality from gender equity? Because these are two concepts that get turned around a lot. So in your own definition, how will you differentiate those two concepts? And in relation to the injustices, the cultural pressures, how do you think those two concepts fit in?
Tasew: Well, before talking about the difference between gender equality and gender equity, I would like to add more on the socialization process.
So the socialization process, which starts with some preference, would at the end of the day put you in a different box, a gender box — that’s called a gender box. So the society will tell you, “As a woman, as a girl, you should be able to do this and not this. And as a boy you should be able to do this and that.”
So when you try to go out of that gender box, they will give you names. You cannot act differently. It’s very difficult for you to function as an independent young woman who can do it all and things like that. They will tell you you’re acting like a man.
So if a man cries, for example, they will tell him, “Act like a man, don’t act like a woman.”
Ojedele: If a woman is too strong, she’s the b-word. She’s aggressive. If a man voices his opinion, he’s assertive.
Tasew: You know it all. Why are you asking me these questions?
So the thing is, the socialization process in a patriarchal society makes sure that they put you in different boxes so that you don’t even connect, making it difficult for both men and women to provide meaningful contributions for their societies.
So coming back to your question about gender equality and equity, gender equality is about equal opportunity. It could be about education. We talked about how my mother was denied that equal opportunity just because she was a girl, just because the society thinks that it’s appropriate for a girl to be married, not to be sent to school. So she was denied that opportunity.
So equality got everything to do with making it possible for both boys and girls, men and women to have access to health services, education, and also security — all the things that a society should be providing for.
So when it comes to gender equity, it’s going to take a different form, because it’s about the process. How do you get there? How do you get to gender equality? You have to realize the fact that you’ve been denying some rights for women or girls and you’ve been granting it to men and boys. That would mean you have to be just in your decisions.
So you have to compensate for the past mistakes, for the past injustice you have done and make it right by introducing some remedial actions.
Ojedele: Affirmative action.
Tasew: Exactly. Exactly. So people get affirmative action wrongly, but affirmative action is very important in … for example, they say, “Why do you have to provide affirmative action for students who are going to go to tertiary education?” And some people don’t even understand the process.
It doesn’t mean that you are making a girl … First of all, not everybody goes there. As a female student, not everybody gets to tertiary education by affirmative action. That’s for sure. But there are some who can make it there by affirmative action. It doesn’t mean that they were zero or they doesn’t know. Or they’re not capable of doing university education. It’s a minor grades or max — maybe three max from 100 point that’s added to them to get there.
Or when a man and a woman perform equally on a job interview, if the employer decides to hire a woman it doesn’t mean that a woman was any lesser than the man. It means that we don’t have women in the workforce. We don’t have women in tertiary education. We make more than half of the society but our representation everywhere is less than 30 percent, 20 percent and so on.
So we’re trying to compensate for that past mistake the society we created. It didn’t come out of the blue. Men didn’t bring it upon women. We brought it together.
Ojedele: So what you’re saying is that gender equality is about providing the same opportunities, making sure everybody have the same chances, the same resources. Everything goes round. But gender equity is about the process of getting there because we’re all not starting from the same point. It’s not the same starting point. So it’s to get us to the same level playing field. So, obviously, to you these two concepts are important.
Tasew: Very important.
Ojedele: So what are you doing in your work to ensure gender equity and equality in Ethiopia?
Tasew: That’s a very good question.
You talked about what I do currently, professionally. I’m working for CARE Ethiopia in Ethiopia as a gender and nutrition adviser.
I have about nine years of experience, actually. But most of it I worked with girls, young women, because I believe in the power of education. Education can turn you, or can shoot you as a rocket. It’s like a rocket. From — if it wasn’t for her parents’ choice, my mother would have been in such places where we’re talking right now.
So it’s very important that we focus on trying to empower women. That’s why even if my professional work engagement, what I do right now is also about gender equality, also about trying to make sure that whenever we develop a program, we take the perspective of men and women differently. How do we want to empower women?
Now I’m working with women in the agriculture sector, and we say women are not farmers because we don’t see them usually plowing the land. But most of the agricultural work is done by women. We know that. It’s researched and it’s there.
But since we have that misconception or stereotype about what farmer means, we relate farmers with male’s job and not as women’s job.
So I believe in empowering and making sure that whatever a woman is doing is recognized.
Ojedele: Do you want to talk about some of the specific activities, some of the specific programs you do to ensure gender equality and you are catering for some of the needs arising in your community?
Tasew: That’s what I’m talking about. For example, in my professional work environment now, we are trying to empower women, farmers specifically. Our project is called Pathways Towards a Better Livelihood for Women, for farmer women in rural areas. So those things are related to women empowerment. But my passion, again, is with girls, with young girls and empowering them, making sure that they make it because education is key to their development and their nation’s development.
So I always volunteer. I really love volunteering. Currently I am a board member for YMCA. And also I am a supporter of the Yellow Movement in Addis Ababa University. I always volunteer to provide role model testimonials during first three years of university for female students, particularly. I go to universities, partner with the gender offices, and also with movements like the Yellow Movement in Addis Ababa University to provide role model testimonial to provide orientation for female students about their opportunities and challenges in the university —
Ojedele: You’re busy! You’ve been really busy.
Tasew: Yes, I’ve been really busy.
Ojedele: And in the course of us discussing here, you’ve also mentioned informally to me about the disparity between primary school education and secondary school education in your community. And I think you’ve mentioned, like, for every 15 primary schools, there’s only one secondary school. And, again, most times people opt to send their male children to that secondary school. And sometimes it’s even so far from where the girls are. And you have some interventions around that area. Would you like to talk about that?
Tasew: Well, again, I’ll take you back to my mother’s story.
Of course, she was not able to even finish her primary education, let alone secondary education. But one factor is also the fact that access was not there. In order for you to have 50 percent representation of female students at the tertiary level, you need to start it at the primary level.
So now we’re doing in Ethiopia in terms of bringing girls and boys equally to primary schools but as we grow up in the educational ladder, the representation, the retention rate for female students will just drop.
So for me, I believe in education, remember? I really, I strongly believe. It’s my life. It’s my mother’s life. I strongly believe in educating girls. And I strongly suggest that families should send their girls to school and anybody and everybody in different areas should believe in education because we are all products of education. It doesn’t matter which subject matter we have studied. We are here because of education.
So they should believe and promote the fact that education can change people’s lives and it can really transform girls’ lives. So for me to believe in that, that would mean to see a girl who made it through education. So we’re talking about tertiary level education. But in order to get there, access is very important. Starting from primary level. So at the primary level, we’re constructing — many schools are in the communities now. It’s good the government is taking initiative with this regard.
But when we talk about secondary education, even the number will just drop. Even of access, the physical access to schools will be really difficult. So maybe you have to travel a long way or you have to rent a house around the towns where the secondary schools are located and live there to provide for your own food and dormitories and things like that. And families will not afford that. And also if you want to walk that long distance from home to school there is also other problems, like abduction.
Ojedele: So what kind of interventions are gonna cater for that? Is it better to bring the school, then, closer to where the people are or to provide transportation for them to go to where the schools are?
Tasew: I’m not gonna choose between the two options —
Ojedele: You think they both are important.
Tasew: … you just give me. Both are very important. But for me as an intermediate solution I’m working on a project, a school-building project. It’s gonna be only for girls. It’s gonna be about — not as such providing them with basic education or secondary level education, it’s about developing their leadership character so that they become better citizens. They become better person for their family, for themselves.
So I’m working — this YALI program, it really help me connect with different individuals. Because of my mother’s story, it is always at the back of my mind to start and initiate a school-building program at the rural areas of my country. But I had to keep it there at the back of my head until this particular event where we were together, when we went to a peer collaborator’s meeting and we met with one of the foundations working on school-building and shelter-building initiatives. And I am trying to collaborate with them. It doesn’t have to be only them. Actually I will start collaborating with other partners as well. And I will try to make sure I will try to realize my vision, which is building a boarding school which runs itself.
And really this experience helped me to bring it forefront. To say, “I can start doing it now. I don’t have to wait until I get old.” And you know now I have the energy. I have my mother with me. She is my motivation. While she is here, while she is with me, we can do this together. I was even mentioning this to her over the phone last time. I just asked her, “What do you think if I go ahead and build a school in your home?” She said, “That’s a very good idea!” So you know I already have the motivation. I already have the networks that I want to have, thanks to YALI experience. So I think I’m going to make this happen. But meanwhile I’m going to continue my community services, especially of going out and telling girls that I made it because of education. I was a nobody.
Ojedele: That’s great because that leads me to my next question, which is what other lessons, I know the YALI program, the Mandela Washington Fellowship, has even ignite the fire more in you and you’re ready to go. What are some of the key lessons that you’ve learned from this Fellowship that you’ll be taking back home to your work in community service, to your work at CARE Ethiopia? What are some of those key lessons that you’re taking away?
Tasew: That’s a very good thing.
One major learning I take away from this program is sustainability. We had the session on social entrepreneurship. I never thought of becoming a social entrepreneur before the YALI experience. I can tell you this much. So I was saying, “What is social entrepreneurship?” Then during those sessions and immediately were related to a social entrepreneur, we went to him, we talked to him, and I came to understand that a social entrepreneurship will actually lead you to sustain whatever you want to achieve in life. Your project goals. You understand?
Now, of course, I’m working for an international nongovernmental organization. We are highly dependent upon donor funding. Of course, we really strive to make our programs sustainable by collaborating with the government, other nongovernmental organizations and also the society that we’re working with. Yet again, making things sustainable would really matter. So we have to work hard in a way for your project to reveal itself as a self-sustaining project. So trying to design it as a social enterprise would help you ensure sustainability. So that’s a big —
Ojedele: So it’s like a social business.
Ojedele: It’s for a social cause, but there’s still the business element where the project itself can generate the resources to then run itself.
Tasew: You got it right.
Ojedele: So that it’s not dependent solely on gifts and donations and grants, but it can continue to run its cause so that the social aspect of it can be achieved.
Tasew: With that also you will ensure equality because you don’t have to only provide … Access is one thing, but providing quality education, that also takes the element of life skills leadership, language skills, trainings in it. Starting from secondary level. My mission is I’m not gonna build a primary education but a secondary education. And I want the element of life skills, element of leadership, communication, and also the different skills that we are trying to get from the different things we’re exposed to. So those things, if you can get them at the early stage, you will become a better person than you are now.
Ojedele: Okay. So I’m sure a lot of people are interested in speaking with you, getting in touch because, of course, your passion for women’s right and women’s empowerment, especially education. It’s very, very apparent. It shows. So if anybody … You’re part of the YALI Network, I’m sure.
Tasew: Yeah. I am.
Ojedele: Yeah. Because there are over 500,000 young Africans on that network. It is amazing with lots of wonderful resources. So if the other members of that network want to replicate your work, what kind of advice do you have for them?
Tasew: Okay. Get engaged. That’s what I want to tell them. For me, just like I said, besides pursuing my project goal, which I just shared with you, I am going to continue volunteering in my community. I’m going to continue talking to young women in universities. I’m going to continue going to them, talking to them about what challenges that they could face and how they can overcome it. Telling my own experience would make them understand that nothing is easy but they can make it happen.
Ojedele: So people can use their personal stories to drive their point home —
Ojedele: … to let people know what their motivations are, what their passion is.
Tasew: Exactly. I’m not gonna tell you about the power of storytelling because you’re the expert on that, but storytelling for me is a very good platform to make learning approachable.
Ojedele: What about mentorship? Where does mentorship fall in all of this?
Tasew: Exactly! When we talk about storytelling, many people would be impressed with your story, but few would really want to learn more about your story, and they come to you. So you have to ready to serve as a mentor yourself. So to reserve some time to talk to them, to reserve some time to be with them, even to reserve some time to take them to your office, show them around so that they can feel it — they can touch what education can do for someone who was nothing at some point in time.
Ojedele: So everybody knows you’re passionate about women empowerment, but what do you think will surprise people about you? What is it that even I don’t know but is really interesting I think people will be surprised to find out about you?
Tasew: I really like to listen to music. You remind me of something. When I was a child, I used to wash clothes and my neighbors would know if I’m going to wash clothes or not that today because I’ll just make it loud and start singing. I really love songs. I really love to listen to songs. I entertain myself by listening to the music. But I’m a big workaholic. I have to work on that.
Ojedele: And be able to balance the fun part of life with all the volunteer work and women empowerment work you’ve been doing.
Tasew: And my family time. And I didn’t tell you, right? I have a boy. My boy’s going to turn 1 year and 6 months next week.
Ojedele: Wow. Congratulations.
Tasew: Thank you so much. And I really love my family so much. I’m a family lady as well.
Ojedele: That’s great. So how have you interacted with the YALI Network? Have you taken courses? Have you done YALI Learns, YALI Serves?
Tasew: Campaigns. I’ve been taking part in some campaigns like YALI for Her [#Africa4Her].
Ojedele: Oh, great. Do you want to tell us about that?
Tasew: Well, I am a member in the YALI Network. So they sent you out causes that you want to promote on your personal space like Facebook and Twitter. So I took part one time in YALI for Her [#Africa4Her].
Ojedele: Yeah. And there are lots of causes like that that people need to take part in.
Tasew: So maybe the different courses that I would also take. There are about 18 or 17 courses.
Ojedele: For the academic courses, now.
Abinet Tasew: Yeah. So you know this experience is like one of the best things happened to me in my life. Not everybody will get this opportunity for sure, but I would encourage them to go ahead and apply to become a Mandela Washington Fellow. But at the same time they should also make use of the opportunity of this online platform. Thanks to technology, what I am getting right here they can get it while they’re back home as well. Even if they have taken part in the Mandela Washington program they can still take some of the courses, and YALI also has interesting courses. I’m also gonna finish them all.
Ojedele: Thank you very much, Abinet.
Tasew: You’re welcome, Rebecca.
Ojedele: It’s been a great honor to hear all about your work and what you’re doing in Ethiopia. So if people want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way for them to get in touch with you?
Tasew: The best way would be to send me an email.
Ojedele: What’s that? Can you tell them what your email is?
Tasew: My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ojedele: Let’s spell that, please.
Tasew: They can also drop me. They can search for me on Facebook. It’s Abinet Tasew. And email me, I mean, send me an inbox. Inbox me their questions. If they want me as a mentor or they want to mentor me.
Ojedele: So Abinet is A-B-I-N-E-T.
Ojedele: … dot T-
Tasew: … A-S-E-W.
Ojedele: Yeah. And it’s the same for Facebook.
Tasew: The Facebook is Abinet Tasew.
Ojedele: That’s A-B-I-N-E-T-
Ojedele: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Abinet.
Tasew: You’re welcome, Rebecca.
Ojedele: And thank you, everyone, for tuning in into another YALI Voices Podcast. And thanks to Abinet for sharing her perspective today.
Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices Podcast.
Our theme music is E Go Happen by a fellow Presidential Precinct alumni, a 2015 Mandela Washington Fellow, Grace Jerry.
This podcast was recorded in the podcast studio at James Madison’s Montpelier, a partner site of the Presidential Precinct.
James Madison was the fourth president of the United States and is known as the father of the U.S. Constitution. Montpelier is now home of the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution.
The YALI Voices Podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government.