Facing Servitude, Ethiopian Girls Run for a Better Life

Meseret Defar, 22, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the 5,000 meters, holds her adopted 5-year-old, Maunt, left, and a relative, Nardos Mesfin. Defar has become an icon for many young Ethiopian women who have begun running in hopes of competing.
Meseret Defar, 22, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the 5,000 meters, holds her adopted 5-year-old, Maunt, left, and a relative, Nardos Mesfin. Defar has become an icon for many young Ethiopian women who have begun running in hopes of competing. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)

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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 29, 2005

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Virtually the only way for Tesdale Mesele, 13, to avoid soon being married into a life of housework and childbearing was to run.

So that's what the spunky girl with matchstick legs and a ponytail did. She ran along the rutted dirt roads of the Ethiopian highlands, barefoot or in torn sneakers, trying to improve her endurance. She ran up the wide, cracked steps to Meskel Square in the capital, while goats wandered by and clouds of pollution turned the air charcoal gray.

And once she felt she was fast enough, Tesdale ran around the country's only track, a rough ring of patched and potholed rubber inside Addis Ababa Stadium, hoping to be spotted by a running club and win a tiny sponsorship known as "calorie money."

Professional running in Ethiopia was long dominated by men, and the country has produced some of the world's best male distance runners. The legendary Haile Gebrselassie, 33, has broken 17 world records and won two Olympic gold medals. But in the last decade, determined female runners like Meseret Defar, 22, have also begun winning Olympic medals, world championship races and marathons. Today, according to an Ethiopian sports magazine, seven of the 10 top-earning athletes in Ethiopia are women.

Inspired by these new national heroines, Tesdale and thousands of other girls have left their villages and come to the capital, living with relatives in hardscrabble neighborhoods, training on their own and dreaming of being able to compete.

But there are other, more practical reasons for girls to become fit and fast.

"I run so the boys know I'm strong and don't harass me," said Tesdale, panting from her afternoon run from school to home in a ragged sweatshirt and sneakers. "I also run because I want to give priority to my schooling. If I'm a good runner, the school will want me to stay and not be home washing laundry and preparing injera ," the spongy bread that is the staple of the Ethiopian diet.

Tesdale lives in a mud-walled compound with three other girls whose older sisters have brought them here from family farms to train as runners. But their real ambition is simply to stay in school.

In Ethiopia, getting an education is a true marathon: Girls' enrollment is among the lowest in the world, and women and girls are more likely to die in childbirth than reach sixth grade, according to UNICEF.

"I have so many hopes for her," said Tesdale's sister, Alamas, 18. "When I was her age, my parents wanted me to marry an old man of 30. They were so angry when I ran away to the city. They didn't speak to me for years. But now, with my sister's dream of running, she has value to them. She has respect. She doesn't have to have babies early, because that would disturb her running. They realize it was right for me to come, and now for her, too."

In Ethiopia, girls as young as 12 can be sold as brides by parents desperate for dowry payments.

The country has Africa's highest rate of vaginal fistulas, a tearing of the vagina that often afflicts adolescents during childbirth and requires painful reconstructive surgery.


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