Last March, I flew halfway across the world to Ethiopia. I’d never been to Africa and frankly, was ignorant to the struggles that women and girls face in male-dominated cultures like in Ethiopia. Many of us runners know of Ethiopia as being home to some of the fastest distance runners ever, including Haile Gebrselassie, and cousins Tirunesh Dibaba and Derartu Tulu, to name a few.
Yet, underneath the celebrity of those world and Olympic champions are the realities that women face every day in Ethiopia, with or without running. I had the opportunity to travel with Girls Gotta Run Foundation (GGRF) to meet the girls and plan a future relay with them and international runners (which could be you!)
What is Girls Gotta Run?
GGRF is the only non-profit organization in Ethiopia that uses running as an innovative approach to keep girls in school—often preventing child marriage, while also providing girls’ mothers with a financial independence course. If a family cannot afford to keep their daughter in school once she reaches her teenage years, most girls will be married by age 14 and start having kids at 15. The girls become isolated from their peers and do not finish school.
The scholarship program ($600/year for three years) provides: a full scholarship to school, healthcare for students and their moms, daily lunches made by the moms who participate in the mothers’ entrepreneurship class, and participation in the Bekoji Running Team (including running shoes, clothes, practice and race support).
14-year-old Desta Diriba and scholarship recipient spoke to us about what the program has taught her about women’s empowerment (translated from Amharic to English):
You know, as a woman, there are different challenges as a woman. But, women are not less than anyone. We should be able to overcome our challenges and be able to run. God willing, my plan is to work hard and run and make my country proud. I also, want to excel in school. I want to do both at the same time.
The Program in Action
When asked what the program has done for her specifically, Desta answered:
“What we receive from the program is, for example, in September we start classes for the new academic year. And we need a lot of things that needs to be fulfilled. And therefore, the program makes sure that we get those. For example, school uniforms, training attire. We have the coach. We have someone to guides us with our school work. We even have schedule on when we should help our parents at our home. Also, parents did not even know each other. But, after this project they discuss and resolve issues. They also learnt on how to form a union and save money take a loan and do business. Parents also meet up once a week and discuss any issues or challenges. Before this project started, our parents were afraid of us. But now they come here and receive advice and therefore I am happy about it. Our coach assists us as our coach, as a sister and as a mother. I receive advice on the challenges we face a woman. I am very grateful and happy about this. I would be very happy if this project continues as is. I would like it to continue.”
Executive Director Kayla Nolan Gets It
I was immediately keen to work with GGRF because of ED Kayla Nolan. She has dedicated her life to women’s empowerment in Sub-Saharan Africa and when she started working with the Girls Gotta Run Foundation seven years ago, she rebuilt the program from the ground-up, creating a truly effective program to empower young women in Ethiopia. Not to mention, these girls love to run, just like me. I want to share my privilege with girls who have to fight so much harder for basic things like respect and the right to stay in school.
Visiting Bekoji, Ethiopia
Along with Kayla and other American runners, we visited the town of Bekoji, which is famous for being the hometown of many of the world’s best distance runners. The town, as Kayla describes it, is “like a truck-stop on the one-paved road in the region. There’s no running water and most people eat a few meals of injera a day.”
Yet, the running culture is as rich as the coffee. Hordes of runners can be seen in the early morning hours, performing dynamic warm-up drills in perfect unison before doing a workout on the town’s dirt track, or running miles on surrounding farming roads, or doing more drills throughout a nearby forest. We were scouting a relay to run with the girls in January 2019—which you can run, too!
Running as a Universal Language
Running is the one guaranteed element of fun in these girls’ days. They go to practice in the morning, only to be followed by school in the afternoon (all secondary schooling is half-day) and the rest of their day is spent farming or helping their parents with other work. They are constantly moving, making them extremely fit even without running. But running on an all-female team provides a safe, sub community within their larger communities, and for some girls, they may go on to run professionally.
As Desta said:
“The value that this program added is that, back in the days, girls either quit school or don’t go out for a training or get involved in sports. They are afraid of going out for a training. Now, we are not afraid and I am very grateful that you contributed to this and I want this program to continue.”
Celebrate These Girls By Sharing Their Stories
I want to share the story of these girls. How crazy it is that a $600 donation enables a 14-year-old girl to stay in school?! Running has changed my life more than I could ever fathom and thus, I feel really connected to these girls because Girls Gotta Run is the same life-changing experience if they receive the scholarship. Seeing the program firsthand and how it works so fluidly within a male-dominated culture is astoundingly impressive. Kayla Nolan and the rest of the GGRF staff is making real change and I want to share this program so that it can expand to offer more scholarships.
Do and learn more…
- Celebrate International Day of the Girl by running virtually with Ragnar Relay on Oct 11th. Support the Girls Gotta Run Foundation by registering for free at https://challenges.runragnar.com/2018/day-of-the-girl-challenge/. All donations will go straight to the girls of GGRF.
Meet and run with the girls! Check out this relay in January 2019 from 1/7 -1/9. https://www.girlsgottarun.org/run-with-us/