Biruh Tesfa: Safe Spaces for Out-of-school Girls in Urban Slum Areas of Ethiopia

Biruh Tesfa is a program that reduces the social isolation of vulnerable girls in urban Ethiopia and provides them with information and services to help prevent sexual exploitation and abuse.

The Issue

Few programs in Africa have sought to address social exclusion and HIV vulnerability among the most marginalized girls in the poorest communities, including child domestic workers and migrant girls. Biruh Tesfa ("Bright Future") reaches the poorest adolescent girls in urban Ethiopia, builds their social support networks, and improves their knowledge and skills to help prevent HIV infection.

The Progress

Biruh Tesfa reaches out-of-school adolescent girls in urban slums, bringing them together with adult female mentors and providing education on HIV and related issues, as well as non-formal education and links to health services. The Population Council conceptualized this project and collaborates with the Ethiopia Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs and its regional bureaus in Amhara, Addis Ababa, and Tigray to manage it.

Biruh Tesfa employs trained adult female mentors who go house-to-house to find eligible out-of-school girls between the ages of 7 and 24 and invite them to participate. The house-to-house visits allow mentors to contact girls who may otherwise be missed, such as child domestic workers who are largely confined to the home, girls with disabilities, and child sex workers. In-home contact also allows mentors to negotiate girls’ participation with their parents or guardians—or employers, if they are domestic workers—and to serve as advocates for girls if they encounter future problems.

Once allowed to join, the girls meet regularly with the mentors and other girls in safe, public, girl-only locations donated by the kebele (local administration). At meetings, mentors provide basic literacy, life skills, financial literacy and savings, and education about HIV and reproductive health. Meeting times are varied to accommodate the schedules of girls who work.

Girls who enroll in Biruh Tesfa are from very disadvantaged backgrounds:

  • Well over 70% do not live with either parent
  • Around 70% are migrants
  • One-third are engaged in child domestic work
  • One-third are daily manual laborers
  • Nearly 1,000 participants are girls with disabilities

Given the extreme poverty of most Biruh Tesfa participants, even basic health care is usually out of their reach. Mentors provide the girls with vouchers for subsidized or free medical and HIV services at participating clinics. Mentors often accompany girls who are fearful about going to clinics alone. In addition, girls are provided with supplies to manage their menstruation and are given underwear.

The Impact

Biruh Tesfa has been scaled up to the poorest areas of 18 cities in Ethiopia, including the capital, Addis Ababa, and more than 55,000 out-of-school girls have participated. A recent evaluation of the program found that girls in Biruh Tesfa were more than twice as likely to report having social support than girls in a comparison area where Biruh Tesfa was not implemented. They were also twice as likely to score well on HIV knowledge questions, to know where to obtain voluntary counseling and testing, and to want to be tested.

Biruh Tesfa is one of only a few rigorously evaluated support programs that serve vulnerable girls in sub-Saharan Africa. These positive changes demonstrate that well-designed programs can reach and effectively support the most vulnerable girls in the poorest areas, such as child domestic workers, girls with disabilities, child sex workers, and rural-to-urban migrants.

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