Women Thrive Against All Odds

Mar 11 , 2023
By Eden Sahle

International Women's Day was celebrated on March 8th last week. However, for Ethiopia, it should be another reminder of how far behind the nation is in protecting girls and women from sexual and physical abuse. It should be a day to amplify how much the nation is missing out on the benefit it can sustain from educating women.

A few months back my husband and I hired a housekeeper named Derartu Ahmed who is in her early 30s. Her politeness and smile made us like her instantly. Once she started living with us, we discovered that she could neither write nor read anything, although she fluently spoke two local languages. She never went to school.

Life has not been kind to Derartu. The father abandoned her mother and six siblings in her early childhood years. She had to get a job at the age of eight to support her struggling mother. The little girl who grew up in the rural area of Jimma town left in search of change. Her siblings followed the same path of separation from their mother hoping for better days.

Derartu started working as a housemaid with her employer only providing meals. She worked day and night for years without payment. In addition, she faced sexual and physical abuse. She was too young to understand her ordeal was a crime punishable by law.

It was in her late 20s that she finally realized assault was not part of her job description, through a radio program she listened to. She fled from the house that had caused her much anguish, leaving her homeless and starved until landing a job in a small bakery.

Derartu omitted details on her educational background but promised to do the work including maintaining safety at the bakery, in turn, spending nights there.

Since counting was a problem for her, she mastered the size of the bread she sold and the colour of the money she must collect from buyers to do transactions correctly. It worked. Her daily meals consisted of a piece of bread and a cup of coffee she bought for five Birr. She earned a monthly salary of 500 Br working for 10 hours a day. She interacted with many people who informed her of much more she could make, living her desired life, if she went to the Middle East.

With the goal of leaving the country, she was motivated to work the night shift baking injera for a restaurant for an additional 500 Br. Her experience of working without taking many breaks since childhood enabled her to cope with the excruciatingly long hours.

In a period of six years, Derartu raised 40,000 Br working tirelessly and starving herself. She handed all that cash to a broker from her hometown who promised to facilitate the travel.

She was eager to put the traumatic days behind her with the hope of a new start elsewhere. What she did not anticipate was being robbed of the hard-earned cash for nothing. She was back to square one- empty-handed, frustrated with nought. Her choice was to move to Addis Abeba seven months ago, this time in search of a place to work where she would find a family she was denied at such a young age.

Tragically Derartu is not the only one in Ethiopia who has experienced such violence. These nightmares are rampant in the country. One in three women undergoes physical and sexual violence putting women at a higher risk of encountering rape and domestic violence in contrast with cancer, car accident or malaria.

Organizations that are working to put an end to such violence against women exhibit significant improvement but the overwhelming issues are too many to address through an uncooperative community.

I was blown away by how fast a learner Derartu is who only needs to observe a task once and will repeat it in a better way. She retains long instructions and effectively operates tech gadgets to do house chores. She memorized letters of food labels, shapes and the smell of spices to identify them while cooking.

She still has a big dream to turn things around by buying land to start farming in her hometown. Her plan is to sell homemade meals to enable the construction of a house for herself and her mother. Although it may seem farfetched since she is starting from scratch, Derartu believes it is not impossible.

Studies have shown that wishful positive beliefs about own capabilities outperform the ones with negative beliefs. Individuals like Derartu who do not allow limitations to put them down, are ones not far from accomplishing their dreams however long it takes.

PUBLISHED ON Mar 11,2023 [ VOL 23 , NO 1193]

Eden Sahle is founder and CEO of Yada Technology Plc. She has studied law with a focus on international economic law. She can be reached at edensah2000@gmail.com.

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