Population + Health + Environment = Sustainability? Ethiopia Shows How It’s Done

This post originally appeared on Population Action International’s blog here. Reposted with permission.

By Dilly Severin, Communications Director, Population Action International

It takes us two hours by rocky dusty road to get here. Hawaryat Town is nestled in the mountains of Southwestern Ethiopia. It is in the Guraghe Zone, one of the most densely populated in the country and as we drive through the town, we can see that the lush hillsides are scarred by naked patches of rusty earth. Most of the residents here are subsistence farmers but extensive soil erosion as a result of these farming practices has a become a threat to their way of life and the environment.

These challenges along with gender inequality, high rates of maternal mortality and unmet need for family planning mean that the needs of Guraghe’s communities require a thoughtful and holistic approach. Guraghe People’s Self Help Organization (GDPSO) works in nine Guraghe woredas (districts). All of its programs employ a PHE approach—they integrate population, health and environmental interventions—to address the entirety of residents’ needs and experiences. GDPSO’s programs range from youth peer education on family planning and reproductive health to livelihood training to reduce food insecurity to conservation efforts such as building dams and trenches. Between 2005 and 2010, GDPSO rehabilitated 515 hectares of degraded land. At the same time, the organization’s family planning programs have resulted in a 15 percent increase in the contraceptive prevalence rate from 18.1 percent in 2005 to 33.5 percent in 2010—4 percent higher than Ethiopia’s average. Important to GDPSO’s approach and success thus far is the fact it engages both women and men its programs.

In Hawaryat Town, Dawit Zegeyo is the head of the PHE club at the local high school. A lanky young man with an infectious smile, Dawit’s passion is palpable. When I ask what motivates him, he declares: “We are the way forward, so it’s up to us to fix the problems of the past.”

“We are the way forward, so it’s up to us to fix the problems of the past.”
“We are the way forward, so it’s up to us to fix the problems of the past.”
To date, Dawit and his fellow club members have rehabilitated the eroded hillsides around the school by planting trees and building check-dams. The club also works on issues of women’s empowerment, providing both a literal and figurative safe space for girls to talk about sexuality and reproductive health. The school library also doubles as a mini warehouse where girls can get sanitary napkins and other supplies. This is important because lack of feminine hygiene products or clean toilets is the number one reason girls drop out of school in Ethiopia.

A few minutes away in Cheza, family planning volunteers are deeply embedded in the lives of the communities where they work. The local health extension worker explains that she provides family planning counseling and supplies to the 838 women of reproductive age in her kebele or neighborhood. She is so determined to provide the women in her care with the best service possible that she has tried every family planning method she offers to her clients herself. Whether it’s a question of what to do about a missed pill or anxiety over developing scars from Norplant, the women in Cheza trust her because they know she understands their concerns and fears. It’s no surprise then that her work and the work of the other volunteers who support her are having an impact on current and future generations.

“I was married at 15 and gave birth to my first child at 17,” says a mother of six who goes simply by the name Yeshib. “My daughter is now 15, and I made sure to teach her all about family planning.”

Stories like Yeshib’s and Dawit’s are testaments to GDPSO’s approach. However, the organization is currently working in only nine of the more than 700 woredas in Ethiopia. If it can scale up its programs and convince policymakers to make the right investments, then every family in Ethiopia’s most vulnerable regions can have a chance at a brighter future.