Biruh Tesfa is a program that reduces the social isolation of vulnerable, out-of-school girls in urban Ethiopia and provides them with literacy and numeracy skills as well as life skills training, information and services to help prevent sexual exploitation and abuse.
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, migrant girls and girls with disabilities. Biruh Tesfa (“Bright Future”) reaches the poorest adolescent girls in urban Ethiopia, builds their literacy and numeracy skills, builds social support networks, and improves their knowledge and skills to help prevent HIV infection.
Biruh Tesfa reaches out-of-school adolescent girls in urban slums, bringing them together with adult female mentors and providing nonformal education and education on HIV and life skills, as well as links to health services. The Population Council conceptualized this project based on research among Ethiopian adolescents 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 the adults with whom they live 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:
- Nearly half (44%) have lost one or both parents
- Over half (52%) have no education
- 82% have fewer than five years of schooling
- One-third are engaged in child domestic work
- One-quarter are daily manual laborers
- Two-thirds are migrants
- Nearly 1,000 participants are girls with disabilities
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.
Biruh Tesfa has been scaled up to the poorest areas of 18 cities in Ethiopia, including the capital, Addis Ababa, and by 2016 more than 75,000 out-of-school girls have participated. A recent evaluation of the program found that girls in the area where Biruh Tesfa operated 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.
A further evaluation examined whether the program improved girls’ literacy and numeracy. The evaluation found that among girls who had never been to formal school who lived in the area where Biruh Tesfa operated, mean scores on reading and numeracy tests increased significantly. Similar improvements in test scores were not seen among girls who had never been to formal school who lived in a comparison area where Biruh Tesfa was not implemented.
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.
Building off its previous success, the program is now scaling up as “Biruh Tesfa for All” to aim to reach 10,500 girls in forced domestic work, a form of modern-day slavery, and girls with disabilities in four Ethiopian cities. As part of the project, mentors’ teaching skills will be tailored to address girls living with disabilities, and girls will receive support as well as upgraded schools to improve access and learning opportunities. During their regular meeting with mentors and other girls in “safe spaces” groups, the girls will receive training in basic literacy and numeracy, financial literacy, entrepreneurship skills and other life skills. At the end of the project, the girls will receive support to apply to formal education and for jobs, and small business mentoring.