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Hannah Godefa leading the fight for girls’ rights

Hannah Godefa leading the fight for girls’ rights

By Elyse Wurm

When Hannah Godefa sat down and flipped open her laptop screen, a quote by Hillary Clinton popped up in pride of place on her desktop.

“I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas. But what I decided to do was fulfill my profession.”

Clinton made the comment in 1992 in response to a question about her continuing her legal career while her husband, Bill Clinton, was Governor of Arkansas.

Controversy ensued, as many saw it as a dig in the ribs to stay-at-home mums, especially coming at a time when the community was redefining traditional gender roles in light of feminism and the women’s rights movement.

But Clinton explained that she was not denouncing a certain lifestyle, instead referring to her dedication to ensuring women are empowered to choose their life’s path, whether it is family oriented, career driven or a combination of the two.

Hannah not only reads these words every day, she embodies them.

A long-time crusader for education in Ethiopia, she chose her profession younger than most and has already spent over half her 19 years fulfilling it. But instead of staying home and focusing only on realizing her own potential, she has made it her mission to empower other young Ethiopian women to choose and pursue their own life’s path.

While education remains a key focus of her work, she is now renewing the fight for girls’ rights with new projects aimed at enhancing girl protection and empowerment.

“For over 10 years my foundation has been working with children in general but now the focus is on girls because they are the most vulnerable, most marginalized and most affected,” Hannah says.

Through her initiative, Sate, which translates into ‘girl’ in Amharic, Hannah is working to assist girls in achieving economic autonomy and support those affected by gender-based violence such as female genital cutting (FGC) and child marriage.

 “In terms of talking about issues like FGM or lack of access to education, the way you present that issue or unpack that issue is this is a fundamental human right,” Hannah says. “It’s not just about being equal with your male counterpart.”

Born in Canada to Ethiopian parents, Hannah never let age get in the way of her activism. At the age of seven she founded Pencil Mountain, a project which has seen over half a million pencils, school supplies and medical supplies distributed throughout Ethiopia to date. At age nine, she started advocating for child’s rights and at age 15 she became a UNICEF National Ambassador to Ethiopia, a position she continues to hold today.

Over the past 10 years Hannah has been an unfaltering voice for vulnerable Ethiopian children on the international stage, with girls’ rights often being a major focus. She has spoken at a number of prominent events including the World Economic Forum, International Day of the Girl Child, UN Global Compact Leaders Summit and Fifth Replenishment Conference of the Global Fund.  

Hannah has also moderated events all over the globe with key figures including Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General, Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director, Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda and MDG Advocacy Group Co-Chair, a plethora of world leaders and other humanitarians such as Melinda Gates and Katy Perry. She also co-wrote an article with the Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, for CNN entitled Teach a Girl, Enrich the World.  

The new projects Hannah is working on are translating these words into actions.

Currently focusing on the Afar Regional State, she has been working with a number of government agencies, non-profit organizations and local partners including Zahra Humed Ali, Head of the Bureau of Women, Children and Youth Affairs in Afar, and Ambassador Hassen Abdulkadir, Deputy President of Afar, to make great strides for girl protection and empowerment.

Together they are striving to identify the key issues currently hampering girls’ opportunities and devise solutions to combat them.

According to Zahra, the main focus areas are increasing the number of girls in schools, engaging women in income generation activities and supporting those affected by gender-based violence.

“[We are] Fighting harmful traditional practices especially eliminating Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), early marriage and gender-based violence,” she says.

Currently, 65 percent of Ethiopian women between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced female genital cutting and 63 percent of women are married by the time they turn 18.

Both practices are known to be extremely detrimental to the physical and mental wellbeing of women. Amongst other consequences, FGC is known to cause menstrual problems, birth complications and psychological disorders such as PTSD, whilst child marriage ceases a girl’s education, makes her more susceptible to HIV and banishes her economic autonomy.

The incidence of these practices varies significantly from region to region, but Afar has been identified as one of the most heavily affected.

“FGM/C was practiced in all parts of the region. Both infibulations and cutting was applied,” said Zahra. “The prevalence was 92 percent .”

A two-pronged approach involving content creation and ground projects is being taken to combat the issues and achieve economic empowerment for rural women.

Content creation is designed to raise awareness and provide girls with a platform to share their ideas. It encompasses advocacy, written material, photography, audio and other communication tools.

“Content to me is really important because otherwise no one will understand the issues,” Hannah says.

In Afar, a documentary film was created in collaboration with VICE Impact exploring the issues of FGC and child marriage in the woreda of Afambo. Facilitated by Anthony Pratt, CEO of Visy, and under the guidance of Katherine Keating, Publisher at VICE Impact, Hannah helped produce and edit the 15 minute film which is due out in January.

“Anthony Pratt and I met in January, at the World Economic Forum and he was very interested in the work that I was doing. So we met later again in March in New York and we decided to do this together,” Hannah says.

Ground projects are the practical strategies that are put in place on-the-ground to empower young women to earn their own living and support those affected by gender-based violence. This can involve facilitating community discussions, providing supplies and creating alternative forms of income.

Education continues to play an important role, as training in livestock and animal husbandry are two of the methods being used to achieve sustainable economic empowerment for the girls in Afar. The current strategy is to buy and distribute goats to girls who would otherwise be financially dependent.

“We provide them with the initial capital and then over time, the idea of the program is that those girls will pass it down to other girls in their community,” Hannah says.

In the future, Hannah plans to extend into other forms of training that can be of benefit to the community.

“Some things that I’m eager to implement that I’ve seen effective in other areas have been vocational training, so when a girl’s no longer in school she can still receive some kind of skills training or trade skills education. Midwifery is an example of that or artisanal sewing.”

The community has rallied behind Hannah’s cause with prominent businesses eager to offer their support, including Ethiopian Airlines, who facilitate the transport of supplies, and the Saro-Maria Hotel, who support Hannah during her visits.

The public response has also been extremely positive and Hannah believes this is a sign that the campaign for girls’ rights is beginning to gain some traction.

“I think the understanding that girls having access to education is a fundamental right is increasing in Ethiopia. That mentality and awareness is growing, so as a result the community has to adapt and shift with the cultural change,” she says.

Change of this magnitude does take time, but sustained efforts will ensure that it keeps moving in the right direction. Local partners will continue working on the projects while Hannah travels back to Duke University to continue her degree in International Politics, but she will be returning over the summer to follow up on the progress, continue creating content and establish ground projects.

Afar is only the beginning. Hannah was able to support children in almost every region in Ethiopia through her Pencil Mountain Project, so she plans to spread her girl protection and empowerment efforts not only throughout this country but continent-wide.

“I definitely want to continue finding ways to economically empower girls in other regions in Ethiopia as well. Also Africa, because those two issues are not unique to Ethiopia,” she says. 

A deep-seated desire to open girls’ eyes to the opportunities available to them and the steps they can take to achieve autonomy will drive Hannah to achieve this ambitious goal.

“The knowledge that there’s this whole community and mass populations of young women who don’t know this and will never be able to understand or comprehend that they can have ownership and can be empowered within their own lives,” she says. “That idea alone is what inspires me to further work for this cause.”

 Ed.’s Note:  The writer is on an internship at The Reporter.