Council Commentary

Council President Julia Bunting recounts recent trip to Ethiopia and Egypt

This past November, I was privileged to visit Egypt and Ethiopia and see firsthand the incredible work of the Population Council. The trip was one of the most moving experiences of my career, full of humbling reminders of the power of our work and the importance of our research.

By sharing highlights of my visit, I hope you will see the power we have together to improve the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our world.

In Addis Ababa, I visited one of the Biruh Tesfa project sites that helps some of the most marginalized girls and young women in society—child domestic workers, sex workers, and girls with disabilities. The program trains adult female mentors to go house-to-house in the poorest urban areas in Ethiopia so that they can identify these girls and invite them to join the program in their community. It is in the safe spaces that this program provides that girls receive training in basic literacy, life skills, and finance, as well as education about reproductive health and HIV prevention. Our rigorous program design and implementation means we can evaluate the most effective interventions and determine what really works to improve these girls’ lives.  

Talking with these girls moved me to tears. Two of them told me they had no family, no friends, no one who cared for them, and that the only time they felt safe was during the two hours they spent each weekday afternoon at this program. Girls as young as seven told me they had been trafficked to Addis Ababa and now worked as domestic servants. 

Our program has ended the isolation of some 70,000 of these girls around the country, giving them new skills and new hope and options for their futures. We're also researching the role of the brokers who recruit girls into this work, in hopes of finding ways to help break the chain. And we’re working with the Ethiopian government and partners to adapt and expand the scale of this program based on our research findings. 

While in Cairo, I joined a focus group discussion with mothers who had recently allowed their daughters to undergo female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). The focus groups are part of a study that the Council is leading in Egypt assessing data on the growing medicalization of the practice—increasingly performed by doctors or nurses rather than local community members. About 90 percent of women in Egypt have been subjected to genital mutilation, usually between the ages of 10 and 12, even though the practice was outlawed in 2008. With a 12-year-old daughter of my own, I found this particularly distressing. 

While the government has been distributing information to prevent FGM/C for years, we learned through this study that many mothers feel it is not the government's business to interfere with parenting decisions. At the same time, several said they were inclined to listen to advice from doctors or nurses, suggesting that by helping health care practitioners better understand the potential negative consequences of FGM/C, we may be able to engage them as effective messengers in the global drive to end the practice altogether. 

My time in Ethiopia and Egypt highlighted that the Population Council has earned the trust, support and involvement of governmental and non-governmental organizations committed to improving the lives of citizens in their countries. I found enormous interest among donors and partners in our work and in the prospect of stronger partnerships to improve the lives of adolescent girls, especially by delaying marriage, promoting education and improving sexual and reproductive health.

Around the world, Population Council research produces data and understanding that inform policies and programs at every level of government and among our partners. In Egypt, for example, the Ford Foundation funds Council research on socio-economic and gender disparities in access to higher education. During my visit to Cairo, I participated in a discussion of the findings with officials from Egypt's Ministries of Education, Higher Education, and researchers, academics and education officers at several development agencies. These national leaders were interested in the Council’s evidence and experience because they know that our research projects are of the highest rigor and quality. Our work ensures that the facts on the ground are evaluated, understood, known, and used to help create policies and programs that actually work to improve the lives of the world's most marginalized people.

And that is what the Population Council is all about. We are a global research organization founded with a strong and unwavering commitment to having a real and positive social impact. And I could not be more proud of the difference the Council's work is making worldwide. The visits not only touched me personally, they energized me and made me more determined than ever to engage others to help continue this powerful work.