Out of sight: the Ethiopian girls struggling for visibility

Nathalie Bertrams



Over the last decade, Ethiopia registered impressive economic performance, cutting poverty by half. Yet, not everyone is benefiting equality. A group of very marginalised teenagers still falls between the cracks of service provision - girls living with the triple burden of poverty, gender and disability.

Thousands of boys and girls with disabilities in Ethiopia are invisible in government statistics, unable to access health services, discriminated by society and, as a result, trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence.

A report from UNFPA and the Population Council highlights that one in every three girls living with disabilities has been forced to have sexual intercourse against her will, almost double the incidence rate reported by girls without disabilities. Girls with disabilities also face systematic and violent abuse at home and in their communities, blamed for being different, and feared for being under ‘the spell of witchcraft’.

Specialized health and rehabilitation services are not accessible to the majority of the population and medical aids are expensive: crutches cost $8 on average and a wheelchair costs $224, unaffordable for most Ethiopians.

Only a fraction of children with disabilities are enrolled in formal education structures. Ethiopia, with a population over 100 million, only has 164 schools that serve students with hearing, visual and intellectual impairments. There are only two schools for students with autism, both of which are in Addis Ababa.

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  • Hearing disabled girl in a special needs class in Debre Tabor, Ethiopia.

  • Eniyat (right) is a seventeen-year-old girl who has been blind since birth. In her village, as in many other towns all over Ethiopia, disability comes with a heavy stigma. “They believe I was cursed with blindness because God was angry”, explains the teenager. Despite the neighbours’ prejudice against her daughters impairment, her mother says: “I will support her education, whatever financial sacrifice it may take. God gave her to us this way, and we love her [the way she is].”

  • Eniyat clutches her sister’s shoulder who walks her to their home in the hills of Selamaya, a village in the highlands of North Gondar. Eniyat needs her sister’s help with the daily thirty-minute uphill hike from school. Her sister does not only protect her from falling over on the rocky climb, but also from abuse. Eniyat mentions that boys and men see her as ‘easy prey’. Girls with impairments are exceptionally vulnerable to abuse, as Eniyat puts it: "It is not like we can see our attacker."

  • At home, her family adapts life to fit Eniyat’s needs. While traditionally all girls help their mothers to get water, do the cleaning, cooking and washing, her role in the household is limited due to her impairment: she takes care of her sister’s baby girl.

  • Eniyat (middle) and other blind students sit in silence on their pew at the back of the classroom while their teacher is training the class’ deaf children in sign language. Debre Tabor, Ethiopia.

  • Meseret, a 19 year old girl from Debre Tabor, a small city in north-central Ethiopia, is deaf but speaks passionately with her hands and face. It has been a long day and she is furious. Like many of her peers, she had to sit national exams today. Since special needs education after grade 4 is not available in the country, she is forced to attend regular classes.

  • Meseret tapping on her friend’s shoulder to ask how she did on her national exam, which she did in regular school. Because there is no special needs education after grade 4, only 6000 students with disabilities attend high school countrywide.

  • The special needs educator visualizes how to spell the alphabet in sign language, letter by letter. There is a severe lack of teachers, classrooms and funding for special needs education, so space and resources often have to be shared. In the future Eniyat hopes to move to Ebenat, a nearby town, to complete 10th grade and pursue her dream of becoming a special needs teacher herself.

  • Misaye Niguse, a 19-year-old with carefully plaited cornrows, also left home. Her father, a subsistence farmer, found her shelter in a church-supported charity for the poor, which houses people living with disabilities, as well as orphans and widows. As she is going to primary school, the government provides her with a special needs student’s stipend of 200 birr (7 US dollars) per month. “It is barely enough for injera,” scoffs the young woman, who says that she often can’t even afford three daily rations of the staple sourdough flatbread.

  • “Debre Tabor is dangerous,” Misaye explains. When she heads to school, she crosses a busy road packed with honking, blue taxis and flashy tuk-tuks. She is terrified of being hit by a passing car or truck. “Drivers don’t ever slow down,” Misaye says. “They don’t even see me.” To navigate the road, she clutches the arm of her best friend - and guide - who also has visual problems but, unlike Misaye, is not completely blind.

  • Misaye is determined to learn Braille. “The government needs to support disabled people more,” says the quiet girl with determination. “When I have finished my education, I will become a civil servant and change that.”

  • Nigistie and Adamtew, and their sister are all hearing impaired and live alone. It is estimated that of the estimated 77.000 child headed households in Ethiopia, 80 percent live well below the absolute poverty line.

  • Some men, Adissie says, believe that ‘girls like us’ are free from HIV and other diseases, making them a preferred target of sexual abuse. Reinforcing the men's motives is that "they think we are cursed by the ancestors anyway." That means: the men think girls with a disability have no right to resist.

  • Without adaptations for their disabilities, "living alone is dangerous," says Addisie (middle), the younger of the two girls, emphasizing their constant worries. "There could be a fire, an electrical explosion, we wouldn’t be able to hear it." Like their little brother, both sisters rather stay at home after school for fear of something happening to them.

  • Fisseha Arage Haile is working for the Ministry of Education. When he was a young student he recorded his teacher speaking on a portable recorder so he could replay the lesson at home. Some of his teachers hit him as they did not like to be recorded when ‘they were speaking politically’.

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