Ethiopia’s young men: Between hope and a hard place


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#####In an attempt to improve women’s lives, this east African country is leaving young men behind, writes Nikki van der Gaag.

Ethiopia has invested much in recent years in economic growth and in policies to support young people. But a better match still needs to be created between education and skills and job opportunities for both young men and young women.

Miki’s* story breaks your heart. He grew up in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, where he was brought up by his grandmother. His mother had left when he was eight and his father was unwell. Nonetheless, he was a cheerful boy who liked helping his granny with the housework and dreamed of being an engineer. Although his family were poor, he did well at school, seeing himself as: ‘a mature and disciplined person’ who acted as a peacemaker when his friends argued.

But then everything changed. In Grade 11, Miki’s father became so ill that his son had to stay home from school. When he returned, he had an argument with his teacher about missing classes. The conflict escalated to the point the police were called, and Miki was expelled.

Miki’s case is not unusual. He is one of 12,000 children and young people in Young Lives, a study on child poverty in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam which has been going on for 15 years, giving a unique insight into children’s lives as they grow up.

The current overwhelming attention on adolescent girls in international development policy often fails to acknowledge the challenges that boys and young men face

After leaving school, Miki earned money selling eggs and chickens. He applied for a loan to expand his business, but his application was rejected. Many of the young men who have left school and are searching for work are in a similar situation; no longer deserving of the protection afforded younger children, yet not old enough to access the resources available to adult men, such as status, ID cards, land, business loans or membership in work cooperatives.

At the time, Miki defined poverty as: ‘Working hard but not changing your life.’ In desperation, he migrated to Sudan in search of work, taking months to arrive; he suffered a lot of violence and his passport and other belongings were stolen. Seeing very few other options, he became involved in smuggling and contraband as a means of survival. He said: ‘You know, when you are hopeless, you feel bad and make wrong decisions.’

Now he sees no way out. He would like to return to school but considers it impossible. On top of this, he was diagnosed with diabetes. He misses his grandmother and wants to return to Addis Ababa but his future is uncertain. He says: ‘Life here is very bad. Things may work out only for “the haves”. But for those who do not have [“the have nots”], even the law doesn’t help.’ The only positive thing in his life is his relationship with his girlfriend.

Stories like Miki’s are seldom told. The policy focus on young people in development in recent years has been on adolescent girls rather than boys and young men. For good reasons – in many countries, girls and women are still treated as second-class citizens. They are less likely to go to school, and vulnerable to violence and discrimination, including child marriage and female genital mutilation and cutting. This work needs to continue.

But the overwhelming attention on adolescent girls has two major flaws. First, it tends to focus on the empowerment of individual girls rather than on the wider contextual and structural analysis of power, privilege or patriarchy. That is needed if things are really going to change: young people’s individual trajectories make little sense in isolation from others’ or from the wider social and economic changes that directly and indirectly affect their choices, chances and actions, or from the services provided (or not) by government in terms of health, education and employment. The spotlight on girls alone largely ignores the relationships between young women and girls and young men and boys, the differences between them, and how they impact each other.

It also fails to acknowledge the challenges that boys and young men from poor families face – like Miki. For example, although overall more boys than girls are in school, in many countries, more girls than boys are now staying there. In the Young Lives study in Ethiopia, by the age of 19, 66 per cent of girls were still in education, compared with 56 per cent of boys, and the girls had completed slightly higher levels of schooling than the boys. Young Lives has found that boys and young men sometimes leave school for paid work, but often it is for seemingly minor reasons which should be resolvable if schools were more flexible to their needs. What does leaving school mean for their futures, for work, marriage and family? Men in many countries are still seen as the providers – with serious consequences for themselves and for society if, like Miki, they fail to provide through no fault of their own.

With support and quality education, boys and young men can help to build a more gender-equal world. Research in a number of countries shows that if men have completed at least some secondary education, they are likely to have attitudes that are more gender-equitable, and are less likely to use violence against an intimate partner.

Ethiopia has invested much in recent years in economic growth and in policies to support young people. The young people in our study have responded with initiative and a determination to make the best of their lives. But for those in the poorest sectors of society this is an uphill task. A better match needs to be created between education and skills and job opportunities for both young men and young women. Or else young men like Miki will remain stuck between the ruin of their childhood hopes and the hard reality in which they find themselves.

*His name has been changed to protect his identity.