Everyone has heard the expression, “the dog ate my homework.” But Anna-Maria Karnes knew a girl living in rural Ethiopia whose textbook was scarfed down by a cow. This prevented the girl from advancing to the next grade until she borrowed enough money to buy another copy.
“She was telling me her story and I laughed,” Karnes said. “I didn’t understand the seriousness.”
The girl’s story inspired Karnes, an adviser and community engagement coordinator for Pitt’s African Studies Program, to complete her dissertation at Pitt in 2018 focusing on how Ethiopian women overcome obstacles in order to get a degree from a university. She gave a presentation to about 30 people Thursday night in Posvar Hall discussing her research on the challenges and perseverance of women seeking higher education in Ethiopia.
According to Karnes, girls and women in Ethiopia often travel long distances to get water, tend to the animals of the home and get firewood before school — which hampers with the amount of time and energy they put toward education.
According to a 2012 report by Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institute, women make up only 27 percent of the university population, a quarter of whom drop out before graduation.
Karnes spoke about how current literature often reflects the setbacks of women seeking higher education in Ethiopia instead of the strengths of those who pursue it. Karnes plans to write literature, illuminating the success of women, not the challenges.
“The sad thing about this, all of the literature is focused on the problems, all about the challenges [of women in Ethiopia],” she said. “My goal ultimately is to make children’s storybooks of their stories so that Ethiopian girls have a story of someone who succeeded.”
After hearing stories of women’s educational success during Karnes’s presentation, Diana Osma, 34, who works in Pitt’s Latin American studies department, thought of education as a gateway to a prosperous life. Having degrees provides them with opportunities to find jobs and financially support their children and encourages them to seek higher education, she said.
“Education for [these girls] is more than a solution for them,” she said. “It totally changed their life.”
Karnes said women in East Africa are usually not expected to pursue a higher education and often do not always have support from their families and loved ones in doing so. One Ethiopian woman Karnes interviewed for her dissertation was forced to marry her rapist when she was only in ninth grade.
According to the UN Ending Violence Against Women report, about 60 percent of Ethiopian women are exposed to sexual violence, and marital rape is not considered a crime in the country.
Despite her husband’s protests — including his several attempts to kill her — the young woman eventually received a master’s degree in population and development and successfully separated from her abusive spouse.
Karnes said many Ethiopian women go into careers in medicine and law despite the hardships they encounter.
“These women are so successful,” Karnes said. “Everything they get they give back to their communities and they’re an inspiration to their village.”
Grace Wang, a sophomore biology major and president of Out of the Ashes, a student organization that provides resources to orphaned and vulnerable children in Ethiopia, said she felt humbled hearing about the stories of these women.
“In my life, I have been privileged to have the level of education I have and to have the support from friends and family,” she said. “As Americans, we have so many more resources to succeed than the girls do in Ethiopia.”
Tabitha Yates, a junior psychology major, also reflected on her collegiate experiences, comparing her difficulties to the Ethiopian women.
“I can definitely stop being lazy here at the University,” she said. “I know I can find motivation somewhere, and education is going to help in the long run.”
Wang said the anecdotes of these women’s lives can help inspire perseverance and build solidarity among women from all over the world.
“If someone tells us we can’t do something, we should do it. As girls. As all of us,” she said.