I first met the wonderful, then-15 year old Hannah Godefa during the International Day of the Girl Child Hannah&Emmacelebrations in New York in October 2013. Hannah, who had been appointed as a UNICEF National Ambassador to Ethiopia in January 2013, gave opening and closing remarks during UNICEF’s High Level panel event — and amazed every single person with her immense poise, strength and passion. I am extremely happy and honored to feature Hannah as one of our Inspirational Women for the #WomenInspire campaign, and know that she will continue to change this world towards better for years to come. Before even reaching adulthood, Hannah has already done more than most of us achieve in a lifetime – that, if anything, is inspirational and something for all of us to strive for.

Q: You founded the “pencil mountain project” which has helped to bring pencils to thousands of students in Ethiopia. What inspired you to start that project?

I was inspired to start the Pencil Mountain project after a visit to rural Ethiopia with my parents as a young girl. After spending some time in their hometown, I befriended a girl around my age and wanted to keep in touch with her after my departure. I asked my parents if we could keep in touch as pen-pals and they informed me that this wouldn’t be possible because she couldn’t afford pencils to write with or basic school supplies. This affected me even after I left Ethiopia because I was constantly reminded of the abundant resources I constantly had available to me. The need I witnessed motivated me to make a difference through this initiative. Since that first encounter in Ethiopia, and through community support and partnerships I have been able to travel back to many rural areas where educational resources and opportunities are limited and utilize this project as a catalyst for change. If one child’s journey to attain education is made easier through this project, then the purpose has been achieved.

©UNICEF Ethiopia/2013/Ayene
©UNICEF Ethiopia/2013/Ayene

Q: In 2013 you became UNICEF’s National Ambassador to Ethiopia. What has this role meant for you, and what kind of work are you doing as a National Ambassador?

Becoming a UNICEF National Ambassador has been one of the greatest highlights of  my advocacy work in education. It has offered me a great platform to raise national and international awareness about education issues, especially gender inequality pertaining to girls. As an ambassador I have been able to represent the voices of Ethiopian youth and highlight important issues and challenges they face everyday. I have also been able to work with UNICEF Ethiopia in various parts of the country, such as Awassa in Amhara and Akura, Gambella to speak to different children and gain greater perspective into how lack of education and access to necessary resources can affect the growth of the child and subsequently affect the community.

3. You were born in Canada, but your family is originally from Ethiopia. If you had to list the top challenges for girls and women in Ethiopia and in Canada, what do you think those would be?

The challenges for women and girls around the world are numerous, and it is an uphill battle to reverse these odds. Despite this, gender disparity is prevalent in both Canada and Ethiopia in a variety of areas and sectors. In Canada, the challenge for women and girls is to attain gender equality in both the public and private sector as well as take on more leadership roles to represent and be the voice for women and girls. In Ethiopia, poverty is the main barrier to gender parity. When a girl is uplifted out of poverty, she will be able to receive an education and eventually sustain and transform her family and community. Traditional practices and cultural mindsets towards girls in very remote areas can also hinder girls from reaching their full potential. Through education, these beliefs can be reformed and gender equality can be achieved in all sectors.

4. What do you think you – and the rest of us – can do in our own lives to address those challenges?

I believe every person, girls – and boys – has a responsibility to promote gender equality and equal educational opportunities for all. We can all play a huge role in advocating for educational rights and access to quality education for girls. There are an abundant amount of resources available we can use as instruments for change, including the power of social media to promote this message. As we see more women and girls take on leadership positions in every sector, there will also be numerous voices advocating for gender equality and girls education rights. It is also crucial to encourage and teach men and boys about the benefits of investing in girls and being advocates for gender parity.

5. Who are the women and girls in your life who have been an inspiration to you and why?

My mother has been a huge influence in my life and a consistent inspiration to me. I grew up with a very strong sense of values and one of the most important things she taught me was to pursue my education and a love of learning to the greatest extent – because it is one of the few things that cannot be taken away from you. As a young girl, she was a passionate student and did not let the limitation of school resources prevent her from achieving academic success in a variety of fields. The sacrifices she made so I could receive quality education are a testament to the power of sending a girl to school. She made education a priority in her life as well as mine, and this is part of my passion to bring this opportunity to every girl lacking it. When I was younger, my father would give me different stories or articles to read of women in leadership positions using their voices to advocate and making a difference in the world for me to read as an example to follow in my education. These constant ideals of powerful, inspiring, girl leaders shaped my passion to make a difference into tangible efforts towards gender equality.

6. What has been the most inspirational moment in your life so far (if you can name one!)?

I have been blessed with many inspirational moments in my life, and words of wisdom that have helped me become the advocate I can be today. The most heartening moments I’ve had are when I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel to very remote parts of Ethiopia and visit South Sudan, to just speak to young children and girls about their daily lives and barriers to education. Regardless of the challenges they face, they remained full of hope and brightness. The smiles and kindness I saw within these children is affirmation of all efforts for equality and access to education. It definitely provided perspective and appreciation for the different challenges children face in education, and incentive to make sure these issues are on the world’s agenda.

7. What is your message to other young girls like yourself, who are motivated and passionate towards promoting positive change in the world? How would you encourage them to raise their voices and become agents of change and development?

My message to all girls who are passionate about promoting positive change would be to first pursue your education to the fullest extent – it will give you the tools you need to truly make a difference. The next step is to harness the power of tools like social media to advocate for important challenges affecting girls such as gender inequity in education. There are also a variety of organizations with girls and gender equality at the center of their core programming that youth can support and partner with. UNICEF’s TechnoGirl in South Africa actually connects over 10,000 adolescent girls in underprivileged schools with mentors from the tech sector to boost their skills and job readiness. Girls interested in using their voice to make a difference can advocate and support initiatives such as these that are really working to make a difference for girls. Above all, the desire and passion to make a difference is the most important part of creating change. It is extremely powerful when this passion, potential and innovation can be mobilized to reduce inequity.

To stay updated on the great things Hannah is doing, follow her on Twitter @Hannahgodefa and on Facebook.

Who inspires you? Remember to share your stories of Women Who Inspire on Twitter by using the hashtag #WomenInspire.

 Featured image: ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2013/Ayene

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