Tertiary education is proving to be an integral partner in addressing Africa’s development issues. Higher education offers practical skills to sub-Saharan Africa’s growing student population, and harnesses the talents of academia, in cooperation with community and business leaders, to generate new and innovative ideas.

However, in some countries, women’s participation in tackling these development challenges has not been readily acknowledged or apparent. In Ethiopia, the women involved in one Africa–U.S. Higher Education Initiative partnership are poised to change that.

Addis Ababa University and the University of Connecticut established the Ethiopian Institute of Water Resources (EIWR) at Addis Ababa University to research the country’s water woes. The institute, in collaboration with five other local universities, offers a degree-level curriculum in water resources and engineering management (WREM). It also provides short-term training for the research and management of water-sector issues, as well as outreach to local communities. Rahel Eshetu, a Ph.D. candidate at EIWR, and her colleagues, Ph.D. candidate Adanech Yared and master’s candidate Lemlem Teweldemedhin, are among four women accepted into the first cohort of the WREM program. In total, the cohort boasts 42 students (four women and 38 men) selected from more than 600 applicants in 2011.

These women recognize the obstacles that water issues pose to the community as well as how the collection and use of water impacts women’s lives.

“Due to climate change, women have more [work] load, to collect water to cook, and to do everything,” said Eshetu. The women list a lack of clean water, long travel distances needed to collect water, and diseases that stem from the use of surface water as major difficulties. “If the women went to school to become educated…If we do such types of things, we can increase awareness,” said Eshetu. Yared adds, “Girls lose time because they [must] fetch water and then have no time to go to school.”

With a keen interest in water issues paired with research skills and an understanding of how limited natural resources influence lives, the EIWR students are in a favorable position to discover practical solutions. Yared speaks passionately about her enthusiasm for teaching, women’s education, and her dissertation, “Downstream Environment and Economic Issues in Omo-Ghibe River Basin.” The WREM program represents a step toward the realization of her personal and professional advancement. Yared is clear about her goals: “I want to improve my education level. Once you improve the education level, your understanding improves.”

EIWR has established a system in which field work is done in teams to enable fruitful discourse between master’s level and doctoral students, according to U.S. partnership director Mekonnen Gebremichael. Using this approach, students teach and learn from one another as they focus on specific river basin issues. “They have to work very closely together. They need each other,” said Gebremichael. In addition, the collaborative experience between the men and women on one team was an unexpected benefit. “The side product is that since the women are working in this together, they are getting a lot of support,” he said. “That was not an intentional plan, but it is working very well.”
Although only four female students are participating in the WREM program, Gebremichael is confident about the diversity of subsequent enrollees because of the partnership’s current extension work throughout Ethiopia. The institute attracted 15 female and 31 male engineering, health, and social sciences undergraduates for a two month summer outreach program, which provides them with a nurturing setting. During the summer program, students live in local rural areas to gain a better understanding of a community’s major obstacles. With a higher number of females involved at the undergraduate level, Gebremichael said he is optimistic about more women being included in WREM’s next class.

The women in the WREM program say they are not looking for any special treatment or women-only programs. “Our institute is good.” said Eshetu, who is working on her dissertation, titled “The Application of Remote Sensing for Irrigation and Water Management.” “All the institute work is collaborative. I personally don’t want a class that is separate for me. I want to sit with the guys and compete.”

Women Water Engineers Positioned to Offer Solutions in Ethiopia

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