After not being able to travel to Link’s in-country projects for so long it was a great experience to be able to visit the newly constructed schools that Link Education International commissioned as part of the theory of change for STAGES (Supporting Transition of Adolescent Girls through Enhancing Systems), funded under the UK’s FCDO’s Girls’ Education Challenge Transition (GEC-T) window and implemented by Link Education Ethiopia in the Wolaita Zone of the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR).
The main reason for constructing the schools was to remove the barriers that girls face to access secondary school education, with the main barrier being distance, which averages out at an approximate 10 – 12 km (6-7 mile) daily walk to just get to school, having a negative impact on energy and concentration levels. Then there are the safety issues for a girl getting either to or from school. Girls that travel to school alone are more vulnerable to sexual harassment, rape and even abduction, and give direct reports of this as one of their main, daily challenges.
So when Link developed the theory of change for STAGES, they focused on removing the preliminary barrier of distance through the build of four new secondary schools, each situated in the remotest of locations within the Wolaita Zone. Without these schools, families would not agree for their daughters to attempt to travel such distances to get to school.
It was assumed that these new schools would lead to gains and impact not only in the form of girls being able to access school but to also experience the other interventions that STAGES offer, such as: direct support through bursaries and basic needs including scholastic materials and sanitary items, gender and inclusion-responsive pedagogy that involves girls more and improves the learning experience, extra tutorials (as needed) with targeted instruction for numeracy and literacy, life skills training and social emotional learning. But to my surprise there were other gains, far beyond the project’s expectations – adult learners!
There were at least five adult learners we spoke to. The first one was Markos Uka, a 62 year old man who had decided to join the school about a year after it opened in September, 2019. After being forced to join the military at 15, during the Derg regime, he had not been able to continue his education and became a farmer after leaving the military.
He told us and the rest of his class “Now that there is a school nearby and I’d heard how happy the students were, I decided to join. I learn here with my own children and really like the atmosphere. Everyone is happy to learn and being older doesn’t make me feel out of place.” Then, when we asked if there were any other older students, a young woman called Workinesh promptly stood up and told us “I was married young and after having my baby I didn’t think there was any hope for me, so I became a shepherd. Then when the school was built I found out I was able to join. So here I am, learning with my peers. I’ve learnt so much here and have new hope for my future. I’m not limited to just being a shepherd, I have a new direction in my life.”
There is no age limit to accessing mainstream education in Ethiopia, and as the less rural secondary schools are usually full, or over-subscribed, there is more room in these new rural schools to join.
The last adult learners we spoke to were at Sorrto secondary school in Kindo Koisha, one of the Woredas in SNNPR. As we were walking round the site we noticed three older ladies so stopped to talk with them. Almaz, Zinash and Aster all told us how joining the school had completely changed their lives, not only in learning, as one would expect, but how it had revolutionised the way they shop, financially plan and save. Their new learning, particularly in literacy has given them the knowledge and skills to barter at the market, break down the costs of different sizes of products, and use the calculator function on their mobile phones to quickly add, subtract and multiply.
But that was not all – when asked about what difference this new learning has had on their lives they told us “Mathematics has been really helpful for us to know the exchanges to make when shopping and also when saving money.”
“Since joining I’ve become the chairperson of the village savings association [for this *Kebele]” Zinash told us, and then Aster added that she had even become the secretary for the savings association (in a different Kebele). Both have made huge differences to their local community through being active change agents, not just by being female leaders within their local savings groups, but also through changing perceptions on how women represent their local communities through talking about their experiences over coffee (chatting over coffee drinking occurs at least three times a day and is considered to be one of the main ways to influence others). Community aspirations, recent events, news and local issues in general are discussed informally among neighbours. “We do discuss these things with other parents” Aster told us, “especially with those people who are signing with their fingerprints. We advise them to learn adult education. If they can’t enter formal education we suggest for them to learn some form of adult education.”
From Markos to Workinesh, and Almaz, Zinash and Aster what other unintended outcomes could these newly constructed schools bring to the community? Our theory of change assumptions have not only enabled secondary school age girls, who are the primary focus of STAGES, to thrive and grow within a conducive, gender-equal school community so they can transition to meaningful pathways that will shape their future, but also to motivate adults to go above and beyond their own expectations and inspire others around them.
Written by Angela Keenan, International Knowledge and Impact Manager, Link Education International