Empowering the next generation of Ethiopian leaders

May 8, 2017

Blog by Evgenia Valuy

IIE Evaluation Officer

What is the power of international education? It could start with something as simple as investing in 100 girls’ secondary school education. In Ethiopia, most girls are not enrolled in secondary school, leaving a significant proportion of the population without the tools that they need to contribute to the country’s economic development. Only a third of girls in Ethiopia enroll in 9th grade, and a mere 3.5% of these girls continue to 11th grade, the required pathway to advance to university. That’s why in 2013 IIE launched the Higher Education Readiness (HER) pilot program to provide scholarships for underserved girls in Ethiopia to assist them in successfully completing secondary school and to ultimately continue on to university.

How I saw the magnitude of impact after 2.5 years

Last summer, I traveled to Addis Ababa to evaluate the impact of HER and to map the trajectories of HER students and alumnae on behalf of IIE’s Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact. By the time I arrived, I had already been working on the program for two and a half years. I thought I was quite familiar with the program, but it wasn’t until I was on the ground in Addis Ababa that I realized the full impacts of HER on the lives of these young women. I already knew that almost all HER students graduate from secondary school and score higher on college entry exam than other girls in school and all girls in Ethiopia. But the most important impacts didn’t only come with numbers; the true impact of HER can be found in the students’ enhanced social and life skills, as well as more familial and community support for the girls’ educational and career goals. The trip helped me see just how great the magnitude of the changes in life skills and community attitudes was, and how it affected the girls’ lives.

In discussions, HER students said that HER trainings in school built their confidence, initiative, independence and other transferable skills, which will continue to propel them to pursue higher education and professional careers. One HER student shared her story of inspiring and organizing her neighbors to participate in a community cleanup. While this may seem like a small act, this was a turning point for her and other young girls who normally wouldn’t ask people to clean up. Now, she and other students lead others by organizing the community to improve their surroundings.

Trainings built our confidence and helped us become problem solvers. For example, when there is trash in the neighborhood, I normally wouldn’t ask people to clean up, but now I have learned how to lead others, so I gathered friends and we started to clean.” – HER student

HER graduating student presenting her group's poster on community impact of the HER program, July 2016

Photo 1. HER graduating student presenting her group’s poster on community impact of the HER program. July 2016.

I also came to appreciate the incredible resilience and determination that the HER students had developed through the program. Though most HER alumnae passed the National Exam for entry into free government universities, some did not pass. During a focus group with HER alumnae who failed the National Exam, I had assumed that these young women would be working or married. I was proven wrong. All but one student found their way to higher education or vocational school, despite the National Exam results – and they told me that they were able to do so because of the HER program!


IIE’s Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact issued two reports to capture these kinds of changes – including self-confidence, self-value, leadership skills, and academics – among HER students. We also compared HER students’ outcomes to a group of girls from the same schools that did not participate in HER. Here is what we found:

Academic Success  

  • 98% of HER’s second cohort of students graduated from secondary school, and 96% continued on to enroll in higher education.
  • 90% of HER’s second cohort of students who failed the National Exam found alternative pathways to higher education, with many enrolling in private colleges.

Self-Value: More than anything, the program showed us that being a woman by itself is being a strong person. - HER student

  • Prior to the program, many  HER students initially reported their  belief that girls  did  not possess the same capabilities as boys. They also initially said that they believed  girls  will not be able to achieve their dreams because of personal  and societal constraints. HER program activities, however,  boosted HER students’ self-confidence and their understanding of their abilities and potential compared  to men. 

Gender Equity: I have been able to make sure that I get the same amount of food and study time as my brother. - HER student 

  • 95% of HER students participate in household decision-making more as a result of the program. Household decision-making is an important component of female empowerment. According to UNICEF, it leads to more equality between the male and female family members and to better health care and more years of education for females and children in the house.

Motivation and Persistence:  We tend to assume that all students possess intrinsic motivation to perform their best, yet they may be discouraged by  the lack of  prospective educational opportunities and  not try hard enough. We need to continuously  nurture students’ dreams and  motivate  them  to be ambitious and aspire. HER program succeeded in motivating students through various channels, including group mentorship, talks with successful Ethiopian women, and  a visit to university.  

Reproductive Health Knowledge: HER alumnae reported that, unlike their classmates, they  felt adequately prepared to plan their academic and professional careers thanks to HER reproductive health  training.  In addition to the leadership and life skills training, they reported  that they felt better prepared to  confront  harassment on campus and  to  make  independent  reproductive health decisions. 

Impact  on Families: “I have realized that she has a lot more potential than I thought.” – HER father.

  • Over 80% of parents said that their communication with HER students about their academics and future plans changed as a result of the HER program.
  • HER parents translated their increased understanding of girls’ needs into support of their HER students. Moral support and reduction of household chores were the most popular, low-cost and high-impact ways of supporting the girls.  
  • All  parents see their HER students as leaders and believe in their abilities more than before the program 

Graphic showing the impact of HER program on participants

Graph 1. In addition to direct impacts in the lives of HER students, the program also helped to build awareness of and familial support for the girls to pursue their academic and professional goals.

During the trip, I met with dozens of HER students and with HER tutors and coordinators. I participated in the HER graduation ceremony and shook the hands of every girl. I also saw their parents proudly taking pictures and a father fighting back tears as he spoke on stage about his daughter’s accomplishments. I saw HER alumnae share their university experiences – and it was in these moments that I was able to witness first-hand the power of international education. The reports, HER Impacts in School and Beyond and HER Future in University demonstrate how a singular program can have positive impacts that go well beyond an individual student. Read how IIE is making a difference in Ethiopia by investing in the next generation of women on the HER website.