The 22 women (and three men) that work for Elilita Women at Risk are completely unreasonable by the standards of Ethiopia. They have gone against societal norms to pursue, develop, and empower girls and young women in the grip of prostitution. The Center for Creative Leadership’s Leadership Beyond Boundariesinitiative was privileged to work with this small organization in Addis Ababa to build the leadership capacity of their staff and to empower young women who are fighting to leave a life of prostitution and abuse.
Hope and Opportunity for Women at Risk
To be clear, leadership development is not a panacea for taking women out of poverty. Investing in the bottom of the economic pyramid through leadership development, however, does provide a solid platform for giving women a voice, which can be a powerful lever for health, education and poverty reduction programs.
Across Africa women like Sara grow up in poverty, without a voice, and from a young age are consistently drilled to acquiesce to any decree of a man. In their book Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn write, “One of the reasons that so many girls and young women are kidnapped, trafficked, raped, and otherwise abused is that they grin and bear it.” With no voice, no education, and no home, Sara’s adolescence life on the street commenced by being raped at age ten, beaten and abused, and forced into prostitution to survive. With patient docility, Sara put up with the abuse on the streets for 11 years.
Rescuing a young woman like Sara from a life on the street is easy. However, the challenge is keeping her from returning. Strong stigmas attached to prostitution, lack of skills and education, coupled with dependencies and misogynistic relationships, often lead them to return to selling their bodies. But there are some women, like Sara, that have a deeply impressive desire to leave their life of prostitution, to create a new story for themselves. These are the women sought out by Women at Risk to be developed, mentored, and trained.
After the CCL Leadership Essentials program, Sara pointed to a small three-legged stool that represented CCL’s Direction, Alignment, and Commitment model of leadership and said, “I understand now that I am a leader and I can set my own direction. I can set goals for me and my daughter, and we can achieve those goals.” Sara went on to say, “for most of my life I was being used, but now I have seen that there are people that are willing to invest in me and who believe in me.” These strong statements attribute to the need for investing in young women, but for Sara, who has spent half her life abused and objectified, these are powerful words of change that underscore the hope, vision, and a determination for a new story and a new life.
I understand now that I am a leader and I can set my own direction. I can set goals for me and my daughter, and we can achieve those goals.
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