Why Ethiopian women are running away


ETHIOPIA: Girls are escaping their traditional lives of domestic drudgery - literally on foot, writes Emily Wax in Addis Ababa

Virtually the only way for Tesdale Mesele (13) to avoid soon being married into a life of housework and childbearing was to run.

So that's what the spunky girl with matchstick legs and a ponytail did. She ran along the rutted dirt-roads of the Ethiopian highlands, barefoot or in torn sneakers, trying to improve her endurance. She ran up the wide, cracked steps to Meskel Square in the capital, while goats wandered by and clouds of pollution turned the air charcoal gray.

And once she felt she was fast enough, Tesdale ran around the country's only track, a rough ring of patched and potholed rubber inside Addis Ababa Stadium, hoping to be spotted by a running club and win a tiny sponsorship known as "calorie money".

Professional running in Ethiopia has long been dominated by men, and the country has produced some of the world's best male distance-runners. The legendary Haile Gebrselassie (33) has broken 17 world records and won two Olympic gold medals.

But in the last decade determined female runners like Meseret Defar (22) have also begun winning Olympic medals, world championship races and marathons. Today, according to an Ethiopian sports magazine, seven of the 10 top-earning athletes in Ethiopia are women.

Inspired by these new national heroines, Tesdale and thousands of other girls have left their villages and come to the capital, living with relatives in hardscrabble neighbourhoods, training on their own and dreaming of being able to compete. But there are other, more practical reasons. "I run so the boys know I'm strong and don't harass me," said Tesdale, panting from her afternoon run home from school in a ragged sweatshirt and sneakers.

"I also run because I want to give priority to my schooling. If I'm a good runner, the school will want me to stay and not be home washing laundry and preparing injera," she says. (Injera is the spongy bread that is the staple of the Ethiopian diet.)

Tesdale lives in a mud-walled compound with three other girls whose older sisters have brought them here from family farms to train as runners. But their real ambition is to stay in school.

In Ethiopia, getting an education is a true marathon: girls' enrolment is among the lowest in the world, and women and girls are more likely to die in childbirth than reach sixth grade, according to Unicef.

"I have so many hopes for her," said Tesdale's sister, Alamas (18). "When I was her age, my parents wanted me to marry an old man of 30. They were so angry when I ran away to the city. They didn't speak to me for years.

"But now, with my sister's dream of running, she has value to them. She has respect. She doesn't have to have babies early, because that would disturb her running."

In Ethiopia, girls as young as 12 can be sold as brides by parents desperate for dowry payments. The country has Africa's highest rate of vaginal fistulas, a tearing of the vagina that often afflicts adolescents during childbirth and requires painful reconstructive surgery.

An impoverished country of 73 million, Ethiopia also has one of the largest caseloads of Aids in the world, forcing many girls to quit school and care for a sick or widowed relative.

There are also cultural taboos against girls walking long distances through desolate bush to school. Parents fear rape and abduction, often carried out to force a girl into marriage.

"Teenage girls in Africa are the most vulnerable population in the world," said Alessandro Conticini, who heads the child protection and HIV/Aids sections at the Unicef office here. "They do more work than their brothers. They are far more vulnerable to dropping out and being forced into domestic labour, forced marriages, prostitution."

Conticini said conditions in Ethiopia were slowly improving, "but ultimately, girls need a good reason to sway parents that they should be allowed to go to school and delay work and marriage."

So far, running has proved a powerful incentive. Even in the most traditional rural enclaves, parents see the benefit of allowing girls to train - which means they must attend school.

Children are expected to support parents in their old age, and girls who run are often economically successful because they lead disciplined lives, said ElShadai Negash, editor of Endurance, an Addis sports magazine.

"For a girl, being able to run is a real statement of freedom that actually turns into power," Negash said. "Female runners are idols in part because of their financial success. If that girl can become a respectable earner, then why not delay marriage? She's seen as an investment, after all."

Many Ethiopian girls develop strength at an early age from doing hours of chores, walking three or four miles a day to fetch water and attend school, and carrying firewood on their heads. While boys spend time with their fathers, running errands or hanging out, girls are responsible for helping their mothers with demanding chores, from mashing fruit for juice to cleaning carpets by hand.

Meseret Defar, who won an Olympic gold medal in 2004 in the 5,000m race and a silver in the 2005 world championships, said she spent her childhood carrying wood so heavy that she developed strong back muscles by the age of 10.

"I used to cry because all I wanted to do was train and run, but I had to do household chores," Defar recounted at a cafe.

"I always ran barefoot," she said, glancing down at the brand-name sneakers she is now paid to wear. "Back then, girls were not bought real sneakers since they were expensive. So I started taking my brothers' shoes for training, getting up really early and then sneaking them back so they could wear them for school." - (LA Times-Washington Post Service)