Fulbright Scholar & Community Activist Uplifting Women
"What is good for women is good for the community,"
Dr. Gebre declares as she promotes her non-profit organization,
KMG (The Kembatti Mentti Gezzima ‚ Tope). Literally translated
it means "Women of Kembatta pooling their efforts to work
together." Located on a lush 7.4 acre land donated by the
township of Durame in southern Ethiopia, close to where she grew
up as a child, the Kembatta women's self-help center stands complete
with an Administrative Center, Cafeteria, Skills Training Center,
Women's Dialogue House, Library Resource Center, Heritage Center,
and a Round House. Her dream realized, Dr. Bogaletch Gebre could
now focus on hot issues affecting women's health, livelihood,
education and environment. "What I discovered in our work,"
she says, "is not changing the whole society at once, but
to change one person at a time. And it works." This oasis
is a far cry from the township she knew as a girl in the village
of a farmer, Bogaletch was taught how to read and write by a relative;
she would study by the campfire at night after completing her
daily house chores and responsibilities. In a village where the
education of girls was rarely encouraged, Bogaletch's father was
reluctant to allow his daughter to continue with her primary school
education. Occasionally, she was given permission and she would
willingly make the six-mile run to and from school. "I would
never dream of complaining," she says, "I felt fortunate;
one of the chosen few." "Demands at home kept me away
from school for weeks, sometimes months," she continues,
"but still I skipped grades, completing four levels in three
years." She became the first girl in her village to be educated
beyond the fourth grade. By the time she was nine she was reading
and translating court documents for her father, a task he had
previously paid others to do for him. She helped people in her
community write their court applications free of charge. "As
a sign of respect in Kambatta tradition, a father is called after
his first-born son, and a mother after her first-born daughter,"
she explains, "Imagine his surprise when my fatherís peers
started calling him ëFather of Bogaletch."
Her father now won over by her diligence and perseverance Bogaletch
was allowed to attend the one and only women's boarding school
in Addis Ababa on a government scholarship. She then went on to
attend Hebrew University in Jerusalem on a full scholarship. Saving
her stipend money with great effort she demonstrated her appreciation
to her father by building him a new house with a corrugated tin
roof ‚ the only one of its kind in Zato. "People came from
miles to see what a woman could do. Now I wanted to do more,"
she confessed. Once people in her village saw what women could
achieve with education they were willing to let their daughters
become educated too and a ripple-effect ensued.
continued her education securing a Fulbright scholarship to the
University of Massachusetts and later completing a PhD program
in Epidemiology at UCLA. Returning to Ethiopia after 13 years
she realized the disparities in education opportunities in her
hometown and began to conceive of a way to give back to her community.
In 1997 she established KMG and ran five marathon races in Los
Angeles, California to raise the funds necessary to build the
center. The slogan on her t-shirt summed up her conviction: "If
my people can walk for miles barefoot, hungry, and sick, I can
run 26 miles to help them."
Ensuring that Ethiopian girls and women have the same opportunities
for education as she did has been Dr. Gebre's foremost desire.
Since its inception, KMG has to date trained 120 women as community-based
reproductive health educators and an additional 500 peer-group
educators from 52 schools. The center has organized annual anti-AIDS
rallies and sensitization workshops for over 6,000 local participants
and provided paralegal civic education training for women's groups,
police, teachers, government officials and community elders.
After receiving funding from more than twenty-four international
donors including OXFAM, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the European
Commission, KMG established the first public library in the region.
A 'Dialogue House' was designed for women to gather together to
openly discuss their ideas and concerns. Efforts to relieve women
from walking many miles in search of water were also made as KMG
created women's work cooperatives and constructed reservoirs for
potable water. Legal clinics have been set up to teach women their
legal rights to health and education.
has primarily tackled the issue of female genital excision (FGE)
and educates women to refuse to undergo this dangerous and harmful
tradition. The approach of including elders and local leaders
in the re-education process has been successful, and slowly attitudes
and social behaviors are changing with emphasis on protection
of women's health and reproductive rights. In January 2003, a
young couple in Bogaletchís hometown made international headlines
as BBC carried their inspiring wedding ceremony. The bride wore
a placard reading "I am so happy to be an uncircumcised woman."
The groom's placard read: "Iím extremely glad to be marrying
an uncircumcised girl." In a society where 85% of the population
is estimated to undergo FGE it is indeed brave to stand up against
such a practice, and it is becoming increasingly more important
to do so as the HIV/AIDS infection rate of young girls aged 15-19
is now seven times that of boys the same age. Traditional practices
such as FGE and abductions leading to rape have left many girls
and women prone to this deadly epidemic.
Additional future KMG projects include strengthening women's leadership
and decision-making capacity in the prevention and control of
HIV/AIDS, establishment of a mother child health center, creation
of a voluntary counseling and testing center, and developing a
business center for women to gain skills training for more income-generation.
Dr. Gebre's emphasis on giving back to her community is noteworthy.
"It is roughly 7,000 miles from Los Angeles to Ethiopia,
but the distance is compressed by a growing awareness that we
are all one on this small, blue planet," she states. Living
up to her name, which means "she who is like a flash of light",
Bogaletch is providing a light for other concerned citizens to
follow. "Poor women don't like breaks," she reminds
us, "they like opportunities. Once you give them that they
run with it. They asked us for a library, water, bridge, school,
women's center, and women's health clinic. When we provide that,
they create their own solutions." Awe-inspiring, talented,
and dedicated, Dr. Bogaletch Gebre is transforming society and
telling each of us "We are the ones we've been waiting for."
learn more about KMG and Dr. Bogaletch Gebre you may visit her
web site at www.kmgselfhelp.org
The Kembatti Mentti Gezzima - Tope