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Facing Servitude, Ethiopian Girls Run for a Better Life

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.

Ethiopia, an impoverished country of 73 million, also has one of the largest caseloads of AIDS in the world, forcing many girls to quit school and care for a sick or widowed relative. Since few homes have running water or electricity, cooking and cleaning take most of day.

There are also cultural taboos against girls walking long distances through desolate bush to school. Parents fear rape and abduction, which are often carried out as a way to force a girl into marriage.

"Teenage girls in Africa are the most vulnerable population in the world," said Alessandro Conticini, who heads the child protection and HIV/AIDS sections at the UNICEF office here. "They do more work than their brothers. They are far more vulnerable to dropping out and being forced into domestic labor . . . forced marriages, prostitution."

Conticini said conditions in Ethiopia were slowly improving, "but ultimately, girls need a good reason to sway parents that they should be allowed to go to school and delay work and marriage."

So far, running has proved a powerful incentive. Even in the most traditional rural enclaves, parents see the benefit in allowing girls to train, which means they must attend school because coaches pick race contestants.

Children here are expected to support parents in their old age, and girls who run are often economically successful because they lead disciplined lives, said ElShadai Negash, editor of Endurance, a sports magazine in Addis Ababa.

"For a girl, being able to run is a real statement of freedom that actually turns into power," Negash said. "Female runners are idols in part because of their financial success. If that girl can become a respectable earner, then why not delay marriage? She's seen as an investment, after all."

Many Ethiopian girls develop strength at an early age from doing hours of chores, walking three or four miles a day to fetch water and attend school, and carrying loads of firewood on their heads.

While boys spend time with their fathers, running errands or hanging out, girls are responsible for helping their mothers with demanding chores, from mashing fruit for juice to cleaning carpets by hand.

Meseret Defar, who won an Olympic gold medal in 2004 in the 5,000 meters and a silver in the 2005 world championships, said she spent her childhood carrying wood so heavy that she developed strong back muscles by age 10.

"I would also carry clay pots filled with water for two miles every day," Defar recounted at a cafe here. "I used to cry because all I wanted to do was train and run, but I had to do household chores."

Though barely five feet tall, she proved to be an astonishingly fast runner, and eventually got the attention of her father and coaches at school. Even then, however, she had to secretly borrow her brothers' sneakers.

"I always ran barefoot," she said, glancing down at the brand-name sneakers she is now paid to wear. "Back then, girls were not bought real sneakers since they were expensive. So I started taking my brothers' shoes for training, getting up really early and then sneaking them back so they could wear them for school."

Defar has earned so much money from running that she paid for both of her brothers to go to school; one is studying computers and the other video production.

Perhaps most important, being a successful runner gave her more control over her life. She was able to delay childbirth and choose the man she married, a handsome soccer player who is her age and has similar interests.

Recently Defar spoke to young mothers hospitalized with vaginal fistulas. She said she encouraged them to help their own daughters stay in school, develop their talents, delay marriage and find value in their lives. In the compound where Tesdale lives, the girls idolize Defar and have hung posters of her on the walls.

"Running gives girls a lot of options and makes our bodies our own," Defar said. "And even if everyone doesn't make it, training opens up ideas to teach, to be a coach, to do anything you try hard at."

Gebrselassie, the male running star, said he had been speaking at girls' schools and running clubs, too, and donating shoes for their training.

"It's so fantastic that more girls are running in Ethiopia," he said in a telephone interview here this week. "I want to support our girl athletes not just materially but morally. . . . Girls make wonderful runners. I think it sends a fantastic message that girls can do anything the boys do."

On a recent morning, Tesdale and her best friend, Sercalem Tesefay, 14, woke at 5:30 and jogged for an hour to reach Meskel Square.

Warming up at eight minutes a mile, they sped past women stooped under clusters of firewood and men behind the wheels of taxis snarled in traffic.

At Meskel Square, girls and boys were sprinting up the steps as recruiters watched. Neither Tesdale nor Sercalem has signed up with a running group, but they both said they hoped to improve their times by next year.

By 8 a.m. the two friends were off to elementary school, another half-hour run away. After classes ended at 1 p.m., they ran home, fed the goats, walked another mile to collect water and finally sat down in their compound for a traditional coffee ceremony.

Over doll-size cups of strong coffee, the girls' older sisters said they were happy the pair had become modern girls: students and athletes with braids in their hair and paint on their nails.

"There is scarcity of everything in the countryside. If we stay, we aren't sure if our lives will be what we want," said Sercalem's sister, Muluwork, 20, a part-time construction worker. Their "obvious" fate, she said, would be "early marriage and childbirth, along with many years of chores."

Sercalem smiled and turned to Muluwork.

"When I dream," she said, "I see myself running so fast that I can bring us up from our living standards and buy all the girls of Ethiopia sneakers."

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