A Beginner’s Guide to Stopping Time

This piece was written by Julia Z. – a high school student from the United States of America. All opinions are her own.

We hear our grandparents say it. Preach it. Sitting around a crackling fire surrounded by family. Those wise with age warn those who listen eagerly – live while you’re young, enjoy every moment, time moves so fast. We hear the poets telling us to seize the day. Time is an enigmatic topic that attracts scholars, academics, and even inexperienced teenagers like myself. Is it possible that when people tell us to seize the day, they really are warning us to retain our innocence for as long as the universe will allow?

Innocence is lost when the weight of the world is suddenly shifted onto the shoulders of an unsuspecting child. Burden, struggle, and responsibility are what make you transform from an innocent child to an adult who wears stress on his or her face like a child wears a smile.

What I am describing hit me on a recent trip to Ethiopia. Accompanying my aunt, who works on adolescent girls programming with the International Rescue Committee and is the Co-Chair of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls, I received the chance to observe first-hand what humanitarians do. More importantly, I experienced how their work impacts girls. I had the chance to observe a program called Girl Empower, which is true to its name. This program educates in order to empower girls. It includes training mentors who teach a curriculum about a woman’s health, her body, and her choices. This program opens discussions about topics that previously were difficult for girls to discuss: menstruation, gender-based violence, and harmful traditional practices. I was there for the girls’ graduation from this program, and it was amazing to see their emotion, their passion, and their happiness. By providing a safe space for girls to be girls, the program gave these girls something incredibly precious: time

Girl Empower stopped time, something physicists and cosmologists have been trying to figure out for centuries. Girls who were supposed to be married by age 15 were now equipped to be able to have safe, informed conversations with their parents and to make their own decisions. Their parents, who had been through a 10-12 month curriculum and participated in discussions about empowering their daughters, claimed they now knew about the negative effects of early marriage, such as dropping out of school, giving birth too young, and perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Whether or not this enlightenment will spread to future generations or even the girls in the town who were not part of the program, I don’t know. Sustainability of humanitarian programs in general is not guaranteed, but IRC is working diligently to build capacity of the community and support community ownership of the program, not just for the participants but also for future generations of girls.  Will these positive affirmations and lessons spread to others and continue spreading? Only the community can assure that.

The reason this program is impressive to me is not the long-term effects, but the brief intervention of the rapid maturing of these girls. For the year or so these girls are in the program they get a chance to breathe. They won’t marry early during this program (as parents agreed upon). So they are not somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, somebody’s cook, somebody’s water fetcher. During this program they are just girls being educated, discussing difficult topics more openly, and learning about themselves and their potential. Their innocence is preserved, they understand what it means to be their own person, and they are not forced to grow up as fast as they would have otherwise.

There is hope that the lessons these girls learned about protecting themselves emotionally and physically will carry on beyond the life of the project. The power of knowledge, enlightenment, and time to think should not be underestimated. I hope that independently these girls will take what they learned and use it to empower their sisters, friends, and, eventually, daughters. Knowledge is cyclical; it can flow from generation to generation, and over time the community as a whole will benefit. Education radiates outwards from one source and can change the lives of many. The girls lucky enough to participate in this program can take what they have learned and educate others. Maybe, just as IRC did for them, these girls can stall the rapid maturing of other girls in their community. The future is female and one empowered girl can have a greater impact than you might think.

Photo Credit: Noah Silliman

Ending Child Marriage is Family Planning

In my work I travel to cosmopolitan cities and remote villages to assist girls and young women in living the lives that they want- and deserve- to live. Today as I sat before an audience of activists, scholars and practitioners to present my research on child marriage at the International Conference on Family Planning, I remembered one particular encounter in Ethiopia.

I was with a team of researchers conducting interviews at a rural health post in the Amhara Region, where 50% of girls are married by age 15 and 80% by 18. Mid-day an adolescent girl who couldn’t have been older than 15 arrived. She was carrying a large clay jug of water on her back. She wasn’t part of our group, but she talked to my Ethiopian colleagues and eventually came over and sat on the grass next to me.

It turns out that this girl was looking for contraception. The previous month she was forced to marry an adult man and, since her best friend died in childbirth, she was terrified of becoming pregnant. But her husband expected children and so she sought contraception secretly, hoping that we were offering reproductive health services.

Too often health practitioners don’t know how to address the unique needs of child brides, which leaves them even more vulnerable to early pregnancy. Pregnancy and childbirth are leading causes of death for adolescent girls in lower and middle income countries. Countries with high rates of child marriage have high rates of maternal mortality. If a girl does survive, adolescent pregnancy has health complications, including anemia, malnutrition and stunting because pregnant girls are competing with their babies in their wombs for nutrition. Many child brides who survive pregnancy develop obstetric fistula, which is a severe childbirth injury that leaves the survivor incontinent.

That girl and I sat side-by-side for a little over an hour as she slowly inched closer beside me. Eventually our hands were next to each other on the grass, and then she moved her pinkie finger over to touch mine. I took her hand. And we sat like that, quietly holding hands and staring straight ahead, until she lifted that jug of water back on her back and continued her walk home.

FullSizeRender (6)Now, after three days of discussing programs and research aimed at ending child marriage, I’m more confident than ever that this horrific practice will end. In the meantime, whenever I’m sleeping on a chair in a random airport or trying desperately to hear my family through a bad Skype connection, I remember that girl. Today as I was about to present my own research on child marriage, I thought about holding her hand and how, in my heart, I will never let go.


Abducting brides and stealing girlhood

Credit: Ashley Lackovich Van Gorp
Credit: Ashley Lackovich Van Gorp

I remember the first time I encountered child marriage by abduction.

I knew the statistics well: Prepared to address the issue of child marriage in a small town in Ethiopia, I sat with a group of women and sought to understand how they made sense of child brides. They gave vague answers, explaining that they had greater problems than fathers arranging the marriage of their daughters. What, I thought, could be worse than your husband willingly handing over your child to an adult man?

“Here we have abduction,” an older woman explained as her gaze shifted its focus to the ground. “It’s when a man gets together with his friends and takes a girl. His friends help him rape her and then she is his wife.” She paused for a moment, seeking words to explain the depth of this problem. “Sometimes we can keep our daughters safe from our husbands, but we can’t keep them safe from a man we don’t know.” She further explained that the men who kidnap are those who are too poor to afford the bride price. If a man cannot afford to buy a bride, he simply takes one.

Child marriage by abduction entails the kidnapping of a very young adolescent, meaning a girl between the ages of 11 and 14, by a group of adult men. They perform female genital mutilation (FGM), which marks her as married and no longer a virgin. This means that she will not be able to marry anyone else, trapping her into a marriage with her abductor. After the FGM, the abductor-husband rapes the girl and takes her to his home, where she begins her life as a child bride. Her childhood is over, her future now tethered to the man who kidnapped her, cut her genitals and raped her in front of his friends.

Child marriage is a rupture of girlhood. Now in the home of her abductor, the child bride is isolated from her family and friends and no longer able to attend school. She is expected to manage the household, including cooking, cleaning, fetching water, tending the livestock and helping with planting and harvesting. She has little control over her life and little to no power to combat the physical and psychological threats to her wellbeing. This lack of power lingers: women who were abducted as children told me that they have no agency in their marriage. They reported violence in their homes, noting that the household rules have not changed since they entered the home as children.

The UNFPA (2012) notes that solutions to child marriage entail empowering girls by building their skills and social assets, improving access to education, changing social norms, enhancing economics and generating policy. It’s a broad-based approach that focuses on preparing girls to navigate the risks of their environment while simultaneously reducing those risks. A new report from the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) shares case studies of effective programs, demonstrating girl-focused approaches in action. We are learning what to do, but the various forms of child marriage, such as child marriage by abduction, can throw a curve. While a type of child marriage, abduction is connected with trafficking and has specific nuances. Care International is one of the few organizations in Ethiopia that recognize and work against this  specific practice.

Child marriage, however it occurs, is a human rights issue. To learn more, check out Girls not Brides and their over 300 partners, all organizations that are working to ensure that all girls are raised by their parents, and not their husbands.

Survival Odds Improving for Mothers and Newborns in Ethiopia

By Liya Kebede


I never considered my mother a gambler, but looking back to my earliest days in Ethiopia, I realize that the likelihood of my mother and me both dying during childbirth was alarmingly high.

When I was born, the lifetime risk of a mother dying during pregnancy or childbirth in Ethiopia was about 1 in 14. Fortunately, the odds have improved a lot since then.

In fact, according to Save the Children’s State of the World’s Mothers report, Ethiopia has made enormous progress in helping mothers and young children survive. Since 2000, Ethiopia has reduced its lifetime risk of maternal death by nearly two-thirds (from 1 in 24 to 1 in 67) – more than any other country on the African continent.

Ethiopia also has reduced deaths of children under 5 by more than half since 2000. Relative to other countries, Ethiopia has leaped over more than a dozen countries in improving survival rates of mothers and young children.

However, with up to 90 percent of all Ethiopian mothers still giving birth at home, we continue to face major health challenges, especially in helping babies survive the first month of life. Nearly 88,000 newborns died in 2012 from largely preventable causes, and Ethiopia ranks among the top ten countries with the highest number of newborn deaths each year.

Importantly, there is some big news coming out of Ethiopia this spring that is cause for hope in reducing newborn deaths. For the first time on the African continent, there is strong evidence that simple, community-based interventions implemented by well-trained health workers can dramatically reduce deaths from infections in babies less than a month of age.

As many Ethiopians know, the federal government has long supported the development of a strong community-based platform for health services managed by more than 34,000 female Health Extension Workers (HEWs) and an army of community volunteers.

These HEWs provide primary health care services in their community, including hygiene and sanitation, infectious disease control, family health education, and family planning services. They also treat pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria and severe acute malnutrition in small children. Until recently, however, they have not been handling newborn illnesses. That is now changing.

A new study, released in Addis last month and supported by Save the Children, came to two important conclusions:

  • Strengthening maternal and newborn services within the community-based program in Ethiopia could greatly improve health benefits for mothers and children;
  • Training HEWs properly on how to identify sick newborns and treat them with antibiotics when they cannot be referred to hospitals could reduce newborn deaths after the first day of life by as much as 30 percent.

The five year study also found that care-seeking and newborn care practices were significantly improved through health promotion, counseling and by involving community leaders.

Overall, these results show great promise for the continued expansion of community-based newborn care within the national health system.

Of course, mid-level and high-level health facilities remain the best alternative for health care for mothers and children within Ethiopia whenever possible. But the government deserves credit in bringing health care closer to households and recognizing that thousands of mothers and children do not have access to higher level care and are dependent on the community health system for the services they need.

By strengthening community health services – and training health extension workers to use basic interventions that can save lives – Ethiopia is becoming a global leader in reducing maternal and newborn deaths.

Later this month, in Geneva, health ministers from around the world will gather at the World Health Assembly to consider the Every Newborn Action Plan, an international roadmap to help countries sharpen their plans to address maternal and newborn health.

Our Ethiopian health officials attending the meeting can take pride in knowing they already have a country plan that is well underway. For that alone, my mother and I are both grateful.

Liya Kebedejpeg


Liya Kebede, an international fashion model and businesswoman, is the founder of the Liya Kebede Foundation which works to reduce maternal and newborn deaths in Africa through advocacy, education, grant making and partnerships.




Health Post in Rural Ethiopia Photo Credit: Anne-Sofie Helms/Save the Children

Featured Image: A health post in rural Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Anne-Sofie Helms/Save the Children, via Creative Commons licensing on Flickr.

Women Who Inspire: Hannah Godefa

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


By Haile Gebrselassie, Save the Children Child Ambassador, two-time Olympic Champion and four-time World Champion.

Credit: Jiro Ose/Save the Children
Credit: Jiro Ose/Save the Children

Ethiopia, my country, is the cradle of humanity. The first stone tools were found here and Lucy, a 3 million year old skeleton and the first Homo sapiens, was found in the village of Hadar, on the southern edge of the Afar triangle.

Our history is ancient and continuous. We are fiercely proud of the fact that we are the only African nation never to have been colonised. But like every nation our history is chequered and we have suffered.

In 1983, when I was ten years old, the first flames of hunger were flickering throughout Ethiopia. It was that year my mother died due to birth related complications. In those days, in my village, this was not very unusual.

My mother died following birth complications. The women of the village tried to help, but when I think back I realise that none of them really knew what they were doing.

In so many ways, we have made progress in saving the lives of mothers and their newborns since then. Today, the number of children dying before their fifth birthday has been halved since 1990.

The number of women who die in childbirth has declined by almost a third – that’s millions of kids who get to grow up with a mother and millions more getting a chance at life.

What we have achieved so far must be celebrated. The actions of our governments over the last fifteen years have brought about the greatest leap in children’s wellbeing survival in history. This change has been brought about by bold political leadership at the highest levels.

But even today, half of all women giving birth in sub-Saharan Africa give birth without any skilled help. Globally, 2 million women also give birth completely alone.  A direct result of this lack of skilled health workers, as Save the Children has shown in a new report today, a million newborn babies die on their first day of life. A single baby’s death is one death too many.

The good news is that we know what needs to change: ensuring every birth is supported by quality trained health care workers who have the expertise to help premature babies survive, deal with birth complications and prevent newborn infections can, with some wider steps, help prevent as many as two-thirds of these newborn deaths.

Every country in the world must ensure that all mothers-to-be have access to a midwife with life-saving medicines and equipment.

Africa is finally a continent on the rise – and children are the key to our continuing success. I want them to grow up to be the doctors, lawyers, teachers and even athletes that they are meant to be. The race for survival is a marathon, not a sprint. We are in this for the long haul. Like long distance running, this will take endurance, commitment and conviction. We have seen the incredible results when we put our minds to it.

The prize for these children is much greater than an Olympic medal. They get a fair chance at life, regardless of how poor their parents are, where they live or whether they are a boy or a girl. This is a race that we can win.

Learn More:

  • Read the new report from Save the Children, Ending Newborn Deaths
  • Support mothers and newborns everywhere by asking world leaders to make these 5 promises to save newborns in their first day

  • Join the conversation on Twitter using #firstday.