Helena Reisdahl Presents her Study on Education in Ethiopia

Helena Reisdahl, a social worker with broad experience of working with issues related to women’s rights, went to Ethipia on a Minor Field Study grant from the RWI to find out what it would take to have more girls complete primary education. She decided to examine the issue from a grassroots perspective and her research was based on interviews with a focus group of 36 young women ranging from 18-25 years old.

A primary school class in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia


How did you decide to conduct research on this topic and what did you hope to achieve?

There is a visible discrimination of females and poor people in Ethiopia. Educated people have a tendency to be a bit uninterested in their conditions. Coming from Sweden where we have a much less hierarchic society this provoked me. It made me want to put a big flashlight on the competent and strong, always struggling women of Bahir Dar.

I think what I hoped to achieve was to open the eyes of those who are in power to affect the view on this group – and to still my own curiousness – who are these women? It was an obstacle when conducting my research that many extremely poor young women did not seem to ever have been asked: “What is your opinion about this?”

In the bigger picture I hoped to be able to spread the opinions of this group in matters that concern them. For example how to best assist socioeconomically constrained school girls in urban Ethiopia.


How would you summarize the outcome of your research?

What the respondents of my study stated was that the way to help girls in urban Ethiopia is for the government to allocate and help the poorest mothers with income generating activities. It can be to allocate jobs, education, loans, somewhere to grow crops or somewhere to sell one’s merchandise. The culture of silence has to be broken so that the society starts to talk about violence, paternal addiction, menstruation, sex and pregnancy. Violent men should be socially excluded and men who depart from their economic responsibility as fathers should be arrested. The religious leaders should advocate that families invest in girls’ education. Teachers should keep in contact with foster parents who have adolescent housemaids and urge them not to put too much work on them and to feed them properly.


Can you talk about the current issues surrounding the enrolment of girls in primary school in Ethiopia?

General education includes primary education, grade 1-4 and 5-8, and secondary education, which is grade 9-10, after which two years of university preparation or vocational training follows. Three fourths of the girls finalize grade 5 and half of the girls finalize primary education. Still 40% of the budget goes into higher education – where a very small percentage of the students are. This means that the primary school teachers’ salaries are so small that they are hard to live off of, and that textbooks, maintenance of buildings, latrines, water and teaching aids and so forth is compromised.



I did my research in Bahir Dar which is the capital of the Amahara region. In Amhara 40% of the population is so poor that they are not expected to be able to meet their basic need of food. Many of the girls stop growing prematurely and their organs adapt to the reduced intake of calories. Most of the students don’t eat breakfast which means that they are hungry in school. This and a lack of exercise books and pens makes it difficult to utilize the teachings in school.


Gender equality

Girls and women are discriminated in the household and on the labour market. Sons get to eat first, then the daughter. The average wage of women is 66% of the one of men. Being married affects urban womens’ weight more than age, education and occupation.


A lack of information

Poverty is the main reason for why the parents cannot keep the girls in school. But when the girls quit school prematurely they have got no information about menstruation, sex and pregnancy, which makes them easy targets for boys and men who wish to take advantage of them. If they don’t have enough social support – which is uncommon as many have grown up with paternal addiction and domestic violence – they are likely to be taken advantage of on the labour market. Or they will have to turn to prostitution.


How did you decide to adopt the grassroots perspective and focus on the mothers views on the challenges of school enrolment?

I did my internship in Bahir Dar spring of 2014 and became friends with the housemaid of my then resident. I was fascinated by her ideas and insights on how to make the society more equal and how to improve the situation for impoverished girls and women. In our conversations my new friend continuously referred to education as a way to climb “the social ladder”. When I started to plan for my Bachelor thesis I hereby combined giving a voice to a voiceless group with a new perspective on solutions for education in Sub Saharan Africa.


In what ways do you think your background in social work was an asset to completing your project in Ethiopia?

My years at the university taught me how to work with texts and the mechanisms of research. But what I know helped me was my experiences from when I was volunteering at Pippi house in Tanzania the year before. Working with teenage girls who came from the street and who had been prostitutes helped me understand that educational constraints has nothing to do with character. These girls are ready to do whatever it takes in order to complete school. Sadly their perceived meaningfulness is not enough when the possibilities are so small. When there is no food, no exercise books and pens and when the parents (if one is lucky enough to have parents) discourage girls schooling because of poverty and tradition.

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