Participating in sports has long been seen as a way to increase self-confidence and resilience in aspects of life that go well beyond physical exercise. This belief is evident at Girls Gotta Run, a women-led organization, working to empower girls in Ethiopia through running.
In Ethiopia, long-distance running has been a part of the culture for more than six decades. Since Abebe Bekila won Africa’s first Olympic gold medal in the running marathon at the 1960 Olympics Games in Rome, East Africans have dominated the international distance running scene. The top five finishers in the 2023 London Marathon in both male and female categories were from Kenya or Ethiopia.
Just as many in the U.K. aspire to become soccer stars, children in Ethiopia dream of making it to the Olympics, following in the footsteps of athletes like Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele, who are considered idols and have won 10 Olympic medals combined.
For many, running offers a potential escape from poverty. This is because of the value of winning medals and the financial rewards that come from securing a contract with a major sports brand like Adidas or Nike. Such opportunities enable athletes to support their extended families and enjoy better living conditions or lifestyles in the city.
The Challenging Path to Sporting Success
While there might be fairy tale endings for the very few who succeed at the highest level of the sport, the path to Olympic glory is far from certain and often fraught with difficulties for many others. A documentary titled Town of Runners released in 2012 and filmed over the previous four years shed light on these very difficulties, focusing particularly on the challenging circumstances that ambitious young female athletes from a rural town in the Arsi Highlands had to endure in their bid to become successful athletes. These young women had both the belief and determination to succeed, but lacked equipment or facilities and encountered opposition from the biased traditional beliefs around womanhood.
Gender Inequality in Ethiopia
As of February 2021, women occupied about two out of five seats in the Ethiopian parliament, highlighting Ethiopia’s progress on the road toward gender equality. Nonetheless, there appears to be room for more progress, as there is a need to change harmful long-held beliefs and traditions about the role of women.
Girls Gotta Run strives to reduce the school dropout rate and empower girls in Ethiopia. If girls are able to finish their education, they are less likely to be forced into early marriage and early pregnancy. The World Bank revealed that universal secondary education for girls could virtually eliminate child marriage.
A few reasons why girls drop out of school as they enter adolescence include:
- early marriage and/or pregnancy
- increased responsibilities at home
- increased costs of schooling
- food insecurity
- limited access to hygiene facilities
- sexual harassment and assault
- gender bias
The mission of organizations like Girls Gotta Run is to highlight and work to break down these barriers to becoming a successful athlete and in doing so, provide girls and young women with the life skills that will help them find their way in life beyond the world of running. Even those who never make it to the realms of success as professional athletes will have still gained skills that empower them to thrive as adults.
How Girls Gotta Run is Empowering Girls in Ethiopia Through Running
The organization’s work takes place in the local community, with girls taking part in four distinct programs that focus on education, running, life skills and savings and entrepreneurship. Currently, this work happens in two localities: one in Soddo, a city in south-central Ethiopia, and another in the small town of Bekoji in the Arsi region. The Arsi region is famous for its runners who over the past 30 years, have won more than 16 Olympic middle-distance and long-distance titles. So far, Girls Gotta Run has served over 275 women and girls, while also impacting at least 1,100 people through both the Soddo and Bekoji programs.
Girls who attend these projects train together three times a week. They also receive sports kits, as well as healthy snacks to help with their training. However, running activities serve more as a tool for empowering Ethiopian girls in a way that helps them think about what they might achieve beyond running.
Girls Gotta Run is empowering girls through running, providing them with education, life skills and entrepreneurship training. The organization’s work goes beyond athletics, equipping young women with the tools to thrive in life beyond the running track. By addressing barriers such as gender inequality and the risk of early marriage, Girls Gotta Run is helping girls in Ethiopia build self-confidence, resilience and brighter futures.
– Almaz Nerurkar