Occupation: girl

Occupation: girl
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The village where Qello lives is nothing special. Neither big nor small, Dodota Dembel is neither close to a main road nor one of those remote spots one thinks of when imagining isolated places. It is not surrounded by a jungle with tall trees and exotic animals, or a desert crossed by convoys of camels. Dodota Dembel is sun and dust. There are a few bushes here and there, and the occasional acacia. A few hundred houses are dotted across this landscape, all of them pretty much the same, with their mud walls, thatched roofs and single living space serving as a dining room and bedroom, although they eat very little here and sleep on the floor.

Outside, the day is breaking. Within no time, the Ethiopian sun will be relentless, but now, at dawn, the desert still holds the cool of the night. It is 05.30 in the morning and, in the half-light, a few silhouettes can be made out, hurrying along the dirt tracks: it is the army of girls that leave the house every morning with the first rays of light to gather firewood.

Qello is one of those girls. She is tall and thin like the branches she collects, and shy, like many other 13-year-old girls. She was born the second of four brothers but, more importantly, she was born a girl, which according to Ethiopian tradition and custom condemns her to a life of carting water, cooking, cleaning, gathering firewood and looking after her younger brothers. Being a girl here in Ethiopia is a full-time job. According to a UNICEF report, Ethiopia is the second country in the world – after Somalia – where girls dedicate the most time to domestic chores: at least 14 hours a week.


06.30 in the morning: Qello goes to collect firewood.

Photo: Ignacio Marín

In Ethiopia, as of an early age, thousands of girls like Qello are burdened with an unequal and unfair workload, which increases as they approach adolescence. In a rural context in which tradition defines social roles, many families consider domestic chores to be the exclusive responsibility of women and, as such, form part of the essential skills that girls have to learn and will need once they get married and have to look after their own home.

"Their dreams and ambition are crushed by the expectations and social pressure imposed on them as girls: if they don’t learn how to look after a home they will never find a husband, which is what is expected of them," says Claudia Guidarini, gender technical advisor for Save the Children. As a result, the girls are not only required to sacrifice the chance to grow, to play and enjoy their childhood, but their education and personal development is also seriously compromised by this excessive workload.


07.00 in the morning: when she returns home, Qello prepares the breakfast.

Photo: Ignacio Marín

Oblivious to the statistics and reports, Qello picks up the pace. If she does not move fast, she’ll be late for school. It is a juggling act, combining her endless domestic chores with her education. The public school she attends in Dodota Dembel is in a ruinous state. It would look like an abandoned building if it were not for the thousands of children running the length and breadth of it.

There is only one adult in sight in the whole school, the English teacher, the only one to have turned up this morning. Inside one of the overcrowded classrooms, as many as five pupils huddle around one desk. And it is by no means the class with the largest number of pupils. In the lower years, there can be as many as 100 or so pupils per class, between the boys and the girls. In Qello’s tenth grade class, there are 47. The higher the grade, the smaller the class size, as the number of girls dropping out increases with age.


08.00 in the morning: Qello attends class at the local public school.

Photo: Ignacio Marín

Access to education in Ethiopia is a particularly tough challenge for girls, who face all kinds of obstacles. There are only 70 girls, on average, for every 100 boys in secondary school in Ethiopia. The reason for this is that many families see little point in educating their daughters and prioritise the schooling of their male children. When money is short, the girls are the first to have to leave their studies. In some cases, poverty and a lack of financial alternatives means that many families find themselves having to marry off the girls whose upkeep they can no longer afford. A drought or a bad harvest can lead to a wedding.

As Ana Sendagorta, director of the Pablo Horstmann Foundation, explains: "More than half of Qello’s classmates will be married off before they reach adulthood, if they aren’t already married. And, unfortunately, they will all end up leaving their studies shortly after the wedding." According to UNICEF, only 47 per cent of girls and young women – aged between 15 and 24 – know how to read and write in Ethiopia.


14.30 in the afternoon: Qello collects water at the community well.

Photo: Ignacio Marín

For Qello, and the other girls, school represents a break in the middle of a long day’s work, although it only lasts a few hours. Their household duties await them when they leave school. Their first and probably most tedious task is going for water.

The path leading to the well is filled with an infinite procession of girls carrying water on their backs, on donkeys, with the help of a cart or on their heads. Rows of girls sit on their water cans awaiting their turn at the well. There is only one well for the whole community in Dodota Dembel, and Qello sometimes has to wait under the blazing sun, with her feet in the mud, for hours. And that is only the start of it. She then has to take home the water she finally manages to collect. The donkey, now lugging 200 litres of water, moves at a desperately slow pace. The cart creaks at every pothole.


17.00 in the early evening: on reaching home, Qello does the washing, including her brothers’ clothes.

Photo: Ignacio Marín

Qello goes silently on her way. It’s hard to imagine what is on her mind. Perhaps the laundry she has to do when she reaches home or the help she has to give her father in the fields. How she feels about it is probably closer to a sense of quiet resignation than a sense of injustice or injury. It is part of the mechanism of inequality.


18.00 in the evening: at the end of the day, when she has finally finished all her chores, Qello finds some time to study and do her homework, by the light of a small lantern.

Photo: Ignacio Marín

This unequal distribution of domestic work contributes to shaping the girls’ identity and their role in society.

Many girls are brought up to believe that their work is less valuable than that of their brothers, and that their place is in the home, taking care of the household chores. This not only perpetuates gender stereotypes but also limits the girls’ future prospects. For many of them, simply having some ambition is a heroic act.

As night falls, Qello finally finds a little time to do her homework and study. She will repeat the same routine, one day after the next, until she is married and has her own family.


21.00 at night: end of the day at Qello’s home.

Photo: Ignacio Marín

Qello will most likely teach her daughters that they have a duty to take care of the domestic chores, thus completing the intergenerational cycle of gender inequality. For the time being, however, she is enjoying a moment of escape, between her language and history books.

"All girls deserve an opportunity to learn, to play and to dream of a better future," concludes Blanca Carazo, head of projects and emergencies with UNICEF Spain.

This article has been translated from Spanish.