Addis Abeba — Yirgalem Haftu, a 24-year-old girl, felt immense joy when she gained admission to Berri Maida Girls Hostel and Educational Center in 2016. Located 40 kilometers from the regional capital, Mekelle, this was a rare and valuable opportunity for Yirgalem. She had earned her place in the center through excellent results in her eighth-grade examination. Before joining Berri Maida, Yirgalem worried about continuing her secondary education, as the nearest school required a challenging two-hour walk. However, after becoming a part of the center, Yirgalem no longer fretted about having enough food, a bed to sleep in, or other essential items. “It was like a dream come true,” she enthused during an interview with Addis Standard.
Berri Maida Girls Hostel and Educational Center is located in Saharti Samre, one of the 36 woredas in Tigray, in the southeastern part of the region. Established in 2015 by Zenebu Asemahagne, who was born and raised in Saharti Samre, the center boasts 160 dormitories. Its primary goal is to bridge poverty-related gaps that hinder rural high school girls from pursuing further education. Without such support, these girls would be forced to drop out after completing elementary school.
Zenebu emphasized the organization’s key objective of removing barriers hindering girls’ education in Ethiopia. One significant barrier is the considerable distance these girls have to traverse, typically a two-hour walk, to access education. To address this issue, the center provides a conducive learning environment, complete with dormitories, nutritious meals, libraries, and more.
In developing nations like Ethiopia, girls’ education is considered the cornerstone of quicker economic growth, longer life expectancies, and higher standards of living. Unfortunately, unlike Yirgalem, many rural girls in Ethiopia are compelled to either rent accommodation near schools or abandon their education entirely. Girls also face numerous cultural, social, and economic obstacles to receiving an education, leading to a high dropout rate once enrolled. The recent unrest and violence in several regions have exacerbated this situation.
Despite Yirgalem’s delight at being part of Berri Maida, her dream of pursuing higher education faced setbacks. First, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, leading to the closure of all activities, including schooling. Subsequently, a devastating war erupted in November 2020, ravaging large parts of Northern Ethiopia, including Yirgalem’s hometown.
“When I returned home, my village had been ravaged by conflict,” she recalled. After the signing of an agreement in November 2022, the region is gradually experiencing peace, and after three long years, schooling has finally resumed. On May 1, 2023, students in Tigray began returning to school, although classes were initially planned to begin in mid-April. This delay is due to various challenges resulting from the devastating war, according to Kiros Gu’ush (PhD), the interim head of the bureau.
On 5 July 2023, grade eight examinations began in the Tigray region, marking a significant milestone for students who had experienced a long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic and two years of devastating conflict. Out of the 124,000 eligible eighth grade students, only 60,000 registered and participated in the exams held across 75 woredas. The exams were facilitated by 1,007 schools.
In April 2023, Save the Children reported that approximately 2.3 million children in Northern Ethiopia remained out of school, despite the peace agreement reached the previous November. The challenging situation is further worsened by the delayed reconstruction of damaged buildings.
The Berri Maida Girls Hostel and Educational Center, where Yirgalem found refuge seeking shelter and education, was one of the severely affected institutions by the war. Yirgalem expressed her despair, stating that “everything is either stolen or broken.”
Teferi Kebede, the head of Berri Maida, disclosed that the organization incurred losses of an estimated 11 million birr during the Tigray conflict. He mentioned that “all the computers and other service items of the organization were destroyed.” Berri Maida, known for its exceptional standards, annually selects 40 outstanding female students based on various criteria. These dedicated girls traveled long distances, between 30 and 50 kilometers daily, from their homes to the school. Since its inception in 2015, the hostel has accommodated 200 girls, but it is currently non-operational due to the aftermath of the war.
Although schools have reopened, the hostel faces several challenges, including financial difficulties, which hinder it from offering its services. Teferi sadly expressed, “We have nothing but empty buildings.” Despite these hardships, students continue to enroll at the hostel, taking care of all their needs independently. Yirgalem expressed her eagerness for the hostel to resume full functioning, emphasizing the high value placed on education.
Yirgalem’s optimism stems from success stories like Hiwot Woldekiros, a 22-year-old resident of the hostel who spent four years there before joining Addis Ababa University, where she is currently studying management in her final year. However, beneath Hiwot’s personal triumph lies sorrow. Out of the 23 girls who qualified for higher education, only three were able to secure spots at government universities. Hiwot revealed that others were forced to abandon their dreams due to the war as they got married, joined the Tigray forces, or worked as domestic workers. She described how their hopes turned into nightmares because of the war.
Teferi, the head of the hostel, mentioned their plans to resume operations in September 2023. Additionally, Zenebu mentioned their willingness to accept contributions through the “Let’s Save Our Girls in Tigray” account on GoFundMe, aiming to support their cause and empower rural girls. AS