Before arriving in Ethiopia last week, I knew of the country’s reputation, as one of Africa’s most tradition-bound societies; as a country in which men and women have clearly defined roles.
Fetching water, which can be grueling and tedious work, is one such role. It’s just one of many tasks that girls and women are expected to perform in households across Ethiopia every day. Others include gathering firewood, cooking food, caring for children and elderly relatives, maintaining the home, and working on the family farm.
Altogether, these tasks take untold hours and leave girls and women with time for little else, including schooling and paid work outside the home – in short, the opportunity to pursue a better life.
So why do girls and women bear the brunt of so much work? And why are tasks like fetching water not more equally shared among household members?
When I put these questions to my Ethiopian counterpart at Oxfam’s office in Addis Ababa, she tells me that the reasons are simple. Gender stereotypes and inequality are tightly woven into the social fabric of families and communities in Ethiopia, especially in rural areas.
“From birth, girls in Ethiopia are socialized that they have a lower status and less rights than their brothers,” she explains. “This has consequences into the future: because of their chores, girls have less time to go to school; when they enter adolescence they become vulnerable to forced marriage and harmful traditional practices; and as women they have few opportunities outside the home. None of this will change unless attitudes towards girls and women change.”
The approach that Oxfam Canada takes in these situations is to partner with local civil society organizations. The idea being that these organizations well understand the intricacies of local culture and can develop ‘home-grown’ strategies that communities are more likely to adopt.
This approach underpins Oxfam’s Engendering Change program, which is the main focus of my work with Abebech here in Ethiopia. Under this program, we support seven Ethiopia organizations to implement gender-focused projects. These projects variously aim to examine gender stereotypes using dialogue and community conversations, empower and promote women leaders, and reduce violence against women and harmful traditional practices.
But Engendering Change doesn’t stop there. We encourage these same partners to look inwards – at their own organizational culture as it relates to gender equality – and work with them to develop gender-sensitive policies and practices, and ultimately become local champions of gender equality.
As my colleague tells me, “What we hope to achieve is a better life for everyone in Ethiopia, and that means a better life for women!”
Matthew Stenson is Oxfam Canada’s Programme Development Officer, Horn and East Africa