How can you prevent Ethiopian girls from being sold off into early marriage? For Girls Gotta Run, empowering them through running is a good place to start.
Girls Gotta Run is the first and only non-profit organization worldwide that promotes empowerment through running and education. Founded by Patricia Ortman, a former Women’s Studies professor, Girls Gotta Run was built with the aim of bringing about change for women and girls in Ethiopia, a country where child marriage is still an issue. In fact, according to UNICEF, 2017 saw 14 percent of girls under the age of 15 be married off, and 40 percent being younger than 18. While gender inequality prevails heavily in the region, a national lack of education and career opportunities meets gender norms restricting women to household chores. The athletic program not only provides running sessions to 11 to 18 year olds, but school supplies and life coaching. It endeavors to help girls stay in school—and ultimately, achieve their personal and professional goals. After years of relying on volunteers, in 2012, the organization was able to employ full-time staff from the local community, and, as a result, can have an even greater impact on the country.
In Ethiopia, running has become a national symbol of pride and an incredible opportunity for women to compete on the same level as men, both nationally and internationally, be it in marathons or at the Olympics. Celebrated names include track athlete Tirunesh Dibaba and long-distance runner Meseret Defar, who both hold Olympic medals and have broken world records. “It creates a new pathway socially and economically for themselves in the country, but also brings great pride back to Ethiopia,” says Kayla Nolan, the organization’s executive director. With the influence running has on Ethiopia’s national identity, she sees opportunities for girls to have role models to look up to and potentially follow in their footsteps. But it’s more than a door opener: it aids the building of their health, self-confidence, and ability to develop a peer network. Some girls have gone on to compete professionally in the capital of Addis Ababa, Nolan reports, and others have gone on to further education. “We really work with participatory sports as a way to create safe spaces for girls,” she says. According to Nolan, the girls she works with are tenacious, goal-orientated, but often come from economically unstable backgrounds. Thanks to Girls Gotta Run, they learn about their own passions and develop ideas of what they want to do, manifesting dreams and hopes for their future.
The program is community-based, meaning that it closely cooperates with local schools as well as the national Women and Children’s Office. In order for the girls to live with their families—whom they often support with agricultural chores—the sessions are tailored to their schedules and duties, running interests, and educational commitments. On average, they train three to five times a week. It remains an opt-in program: If selected by the organization’s staff following their applications, whether or not they stay is up to them. While many families now work tirelessly to send their daughters to school—a cultural shift, Nolan says, as only one third of young women enrol in high school—others still require convincing. “We’ve had to talk with different families about early marriage prevention. We had one girl who was almost sold into it, so we had to do some counseling. A lot of families want to be able to have their girls stay in school, but there is a lot of challenges economically, so it’s important to work closely with them.” They were also many positive outcomes. After she was accepted onto the program, one girls’ family used the money they had saved for their daughter’s education to open a small shop and farm on their property. “It’s great to see how the families design solutions for themselves when provided with the tools that they need. That was a really encouraging example of girls and their families creating sustainable change for the future,” Nolan says. Moving forward, the organization is looking to scale its programs to offer further support and bring the toolkit to a broader audience, offering more athletic scholarships to students.