Tackling Wicked Problems in Ethiopia: Getting Girls to School

By Dr. Tessie San Martin
March 6, 2014

This is part two in a two part series outlining two “wicked problems”: open defecation and enabling girls to attend and stay in school. This series was written by Tessie San Martin during her recent trip to Ethiopia.

Getting girls to attend and stay in school is another “wicked problem” being tackled by Plan in Ethiopia. As I outlined in part one of this series, wicked problems are hard to define and are unstable. And with unstable problems come unstable solutions. But that doesn’t mean Plan isn’t hard at work tackling these problems and seeing some positive results. 

In my recent visit I had an opportunity to see the work being carried out in very poor and marginalized communities that dot the periphery of Addis Ababa. Girls in the Hribet Chibo school in one of Addis’s sub cities were much less likely to attend school, and even when they do attend, they are more likely to drop out.

There are many reasons: from poverty and culture (a poor family will more likely spend its scarce resources getting the boy rather than the girl to school), to lack of separate latrines for girls or access to sanitary pads (both usually mean that when girls have their period they stay home, and fall behind in school), to the girls’ own low self-esteem (why bother? I am not worth much). 

Plan’s response in the Hribet Chibo school and hundreds of other localities has been equally multifaceted and nuanced. We work with teachers to sensitize them about the obstacles keeping girls from school, and to build support structures (like the Girls Advisory Councils, or GACs) where girls who are threatened or abused or who simply need to get a sanitary pad, can go get help.

We work with the girls themselves (helping them learn how to protect themselves and take care of their bodies) and their parents. The programs recognize that scarcity of resources is a major cause for keeping children – boys and girls – out of school, so it introduces mothers to entrepreneurship training and village savings and loans to boost family incomes. 

The results over the years are really encouraging. In Hribet Chibo, girls’ attendance and completion rates have climbed significantly. Girls are more likely to be ranked in the top of their class. The girls we spoke to were impressive; articulate, and self-confident. But again, many questions remain concerning the sustainability of these results. Plan recognizes that better research and more investment in monitoring and evaluation is necessary here as it is with the problem of open defecation. 

Where does all of this information leave us? Despite Plan’s positive results, the scale of problems like girls’ education and open defecation in the country seems overwhelming. Tackling these problems requires a long-term perspective. The solutions do not lend themselves to ribbon-cutting. These complexities are why organizations like Plan can be so valuable.

Plan can and does help mobilize communities around these issues and invests in innovation and research around potential solutions, which can then be adopted and maintained by the government. Plan’s long-term financing, provided by our base of sponsors around the world, also enables us to establish the foundation of trust with both the communities and the local authorities essential to address these issues.

There are no easy answers or simple solutions here. But the ingredients for tackling these issues are all in place.