Ethiopian women run to escape

In 2005, Emily Wax wrote an article for the Washington Post entitled ‘Facing Servitude, Ethiopian Girls Run for a Better Life’.  The piece explored the many bleak realities faced by young girls growing up in Ethiopia.  Despite a national law prohibiting child marriage, the east African country of Ethiopia has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world.  Sixty percent of girls younger than 18 years old are married and in the Amhara region, fifty percent of girls under 15 are married.  Due to these premature marriages, Ethiopia also faces one of the highest rates of childbirth injuries in the world with 1 in 27 mothers facing the risk of death during labor (compared to a 1 in 4,800 chance of death in the U.S.)  According to UNFPA, Girls aged 15 to 20 are twice as likely to die during childbirth as women in their 20’s and girls under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die of maternal causes.   The reasons behind child marriages are cultural.  Families marry their daughters early in an attempt to keep them more subservient, in an effort to keep their daughter’s chastity intact and to maximize child-bearing years, all of which enhance a family’s status.  Poverty also plays a vital role.  In a country where a shocking eighty percent of its people live on less than $2 a day, families struggling to stay alive are forced to marry their daughters off early.  Parents also hope to shield their daughters from premarital sex, by finding them a husband who can act as a guardian.  Five thousand metre runner Meseret Zenebe, 19, relates, “Abducting girls as young as 12 for marriage is an accepted way of finding a bride in southern Ethiopia…The usual procedure is to kidnap a girl, hide her and rape her.  Then, having taken her virginity or by making her pregnant, the men can contact the village elders and claim her as his bride.”  One way in which these young girls try to avoid early marriage is by training as long-distance runners.  Aster Megitsu, 20 states, “Today, in Ethiopia, there are only three ways to escape forced marriage – turn to prostitution, commit suicide or run for your life.” And run is exactly what many of these girls do.  Aster adds, “I wanted to escape from the influence of my family and live my own life.  My older sister was 14 when my parents forced her to marry a man in his forties.  I looked at her and I ran.  I knew that if you’re good, you’ll get spotted and a running club in Addis Ababa will pay for you to move to the city.”  Aster is not to only one who isn’t motivated by winning medals for her running.  Thirteen year old Tesdale Mesele who is interviewed in Wax’s article states, “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.”  There have been a number of success stories for female Ethiopian runners.  Athletes such as Derartu Tulu who became the first Africa woman to win an Olympic gold medal, Meseret Defar won gold medals in the 5000m at both the World Championships and the Olympics and Tirunesh Dibaba, the current Olympic 5000m and 10000m champion.  Dibaba who was born in the village of Bekoji began doing athletics at the age of 14 in order to avoid an early marriage.  She now earns an estimated £300,000 a year and is married to 2004 and 2008 Olympic silver medallist Sileshi Sihine.  Long distance running, like football elsewhere in Africa or baseball in the Dominican Republic can offer the younger generation a ticket out of poverty.  Dr. Patricia E. Ortman, a retired Women’s Studies Professor embarked upon the task of raising money for the Girls Gotta Run Foundation, a volunteer organization which was established three years ago to provide new shoes for girls training to be runners in Ethiopia.  Ortman argues that suitable running shoes are vital to an aspiring athlete.  She says, “In some cases, girls are forced to give up on their dream of becoming professional athletes due to injuries caused by lack of proper attire and shoes…That’s the big reason why GGRF focuses on sending them money to buy running shoes.”  Dana Roskey, a director of the Tefsa Foundation, an organization that funds early childhood education for disadvantaged children in Ethipoia stresses, however, that running alone cannot be the solution to the problem.  He says, “Girls are more vulnerable to exploitations and misfortune, and their fate is somewhat limited.” He stresses the importance of primary education and adds, “Ultimately running is not their only destiny, and there are other options.”  But for many, becoming an athlete means pride, independence, security and freedom.