It’s true: there is a clear gender imbalance in Ethiopian schools. But it turns out Ethiopia has something many countries don’t: that’s a federal strategy to improve gender equality throughout their education system, from the pre-primary level all the way through university.

As the gender advisor at the Federal Ministry of Education, Leanne Baumung is one of the architects behind this strategy.

For the past nine months, Leanne and her colleagues at the Gender Directorate have been busy; they collaborated with education stakeholders across the country to develop gender-mainstreaming guidelines for education institutions and to build a 60-hour gender responsive pedagogy module for teachers. They also just put the final touches on a revised Gender Equality and Girls’ Education Strategy, to be release this summer.

“One of the big problems with tackling gender equality in education institutions is that many institutions just don’t know where to begin. What the Strategy does is it lays all that out for them and helps them understand why they should be doing planning and programming for gender equality, and how they can be doing it,” says Leanne.

After meeting Candice Vallantin, our Communications Officer, over coffee, Leanne was inspired to join imagine1day during one of our field visits to Oromiya.

In three and a half days, we visited a total of nine different communities working with imagine1day, and interviewed nearly 60 people—students, parents, teachers, principals, community elders, religious leaders and district government officials—to discover how they’ve been mobilizing their communities to ensure that all their children are educated.

At the end of the trip Candice sat down with Leanne to get her perspective on imagine1day’s work.

i1d: Why did you join imagine1day on this trip?

LB: I hadn’t yet had an opportunity in my role as Gender Advisor in the ministry to see any projects on the ground. My previous experience in Ethiopia was not focused in education, it was focused on conflict and peace building, so I didn’t have a first-hand experience with the education system as it’s being implemented.

I love getting out of the city and into the villages. I think there is so much incredibly inspiring that happens at the local level and not a lot of that experience comes back up through the [government] channels and so I was feeling the need to get a better picture.

When we had had our discussion and you had been telling me about some of the successes and some of the challenges that imagine1day had been facing through their projects, I was really struck by how much of the work that you had already been doing was aligned with the strategic directions that we had been working on in the ministry.

For example: the training around sensitizing community leaders, religious leaders around the importance of girls’ education, and the kind of commitments and actions that you have gotten from those trainings. That’s the kind of strategy we’re promoting on a national level so I was really interested to see a more nuanced picture of how that might actually work on the ground.

We need to learn from these successes and we need to learn from the challenges as well. And what the community members have told us, what the PTA members, the students, the principals have told us; we need that information in the ministry. We need that in order to help us say and do the right things and to help us help everybody else, so there’s a lot to be learned going both ways.

i1d: What was the take away? What did you take from this experience?

LB: One was the reality that it takes a community to not only build a school, but to build the success of a school and to ensure that boys and girls are receiving quality education and enjoying equal educational outcomes.

It’s not something that the local government can do alone. It’s not something that school administrators can do alone, and it’s not even something that parents can do alone. It’s something that really takes the equal participation of every individual in a given community.

A couple other things: the importance of female teachers. It is clear that there is more work to be done in order to increase the number of female teachers and females in education leadership. This is one of the crosscutting themes in the national Strategy.

It really hit home for me during the interview we had in Betele how important female teachers and women’s leadership in education really are – the interview with the young girl who is very close to her female teacher, who had essentially helped convince her parents not to force her into marriage.

Leanne with children that imagine1day works with.

Leanne with children that imagine1day works with.

We have met other girls in the area who were too afraid, ashamed, or uncomfortable to express themselves, and then we met this girl, who has a really positive strong female role model, and she was able to express herself confidently. And not only that, but she is doing extracurricular activities in order to help her continue her education so that she can become a teacher like the female role models she looks up to! It really hit home for me how critically important this intervention must be in areas similar to Betele.

The Child-to-Child networking was another very important example of what committed community members can accomplish when they’re working together. Even committed 13-year-olds in the community who want to see their little brothers and sisters go to school. I was almost moved to tears; it was very, very moving to see children so committed to teaching other children. These young students are dedicating three hours of their afternoons when they could be playing or doing something else. At that age, can you imagine having that much commitment to others? It was really, really impressive.

I’ve recognized the importance of school infrastructure. This is something that imagine1day is obviously very concerned about.

It’s east to think, if children are learning in structure made of sticks and mud with a couple holes in the walls, it’s better than nothing. And I guess it IS better than nothing, but you can’t expect children to get a quality education in a structure like that. There are too many elemental challenges, and the existence of safe, private latrines, as we’ve seen, is critical – particularly for girls. So I’m very much more sensitized now to the importance of ensuring not just quality within the school, but quality of the school itself.

Lastly, I’ve been struck by the pervasiveness of the problem of out of school children; looking at the statistics on a national level, it’s difficult to see how big this problem is. But when in these communities, when you see all the children herding cattle at 11 o’clock in the morning, and they could and should be in school, you really begin to understand how extensive the problem is.

i1d: What brought you to Ethiopia?

LB: I have visited and worked in Ethiopia previously, three times now I’ve been here. It’s one of the places in the world I love very much. It always leaves deep impressions on me in many ways and I was happy for the opportunity to return to the country and return to the people.

Aside from that, I think that working as a foreigner and as an advisor in a national ministry is such a rare and valuable position to find. You don’t get that every day. More often than not as a foreigner you’re in the country working as a foreigner. You’re in the country working for a donor organization or for an NGO, sometimes representing external interests.

Here was a chance to really be a part of the internal mechanism that makes a country function and to really see what makes it tick and to also try to be able to contribute toward positive change from the inside out, rather than the outside in, so I was keen to seize that opportunity. So far, it’s been very rewarding!

Thanks for your thoughts Leanne! We can’t wait to see the new Gender Equality and Girls’ Education Strategy when it’s released.