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Life as Visually Impaired Female – Portraits

Just as it is the case in most African countries, the unemployment rate is extremely high in Ethiopia as well: too little job opportunities exist for the young and capable generation that - in contrast to countries in Europe or North America, where the society in average has grown old due to good medical, material, social and economical provision - manifests the majority of the population.

To find employment that not only guarantees a life in safety with a rainproof roof over one's head, regular, healthy meals and adequate clothing on one's body is a challenge even for people who have sight in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. Good educational background, further vocational or professional training and the chances to revert to one's networks and relations are the basis to find a job that covers not only one's own human basic needs, but also the costs of a family as well as religious, social and cultural needs and activities.
People with visual impairment are extremely disadvantaged in this battle for work and income: Within the educational system they have to rely on the assistance of classmates and comrades in their learning processes, as books and materials in Braille are very rare, of bad quality and seldom up-to-date. Moreover, negative attitudes of the sighted society against the visually impaired society exclude the former from the society and its networks vastly.
The weakest link in the Ethiopian society are females with (visual) impairments, who besides their physical disability also suffer from discrimination due to their sex and society's according gender roles: Many women are economically dependent on their husbands or have very low income of their own which makes them much more vulnerable to poverty than men. Especially single mothers with visual impairment face severe challenges as many find themselves abandoned with their children without any support of family and friends and other social networks.
The following presents the cases of Tsehay and Sisay, Fasika and Isubalew, Aster and Betelhem, Wude, Berhane and Zion, who are visually impaired young women with and without children. Their cases depict the livelihood realities of women with visual impairment and the challenges they face.
 
From the Rural Areas to the City
Tsehay & Sisay
Tsehay is a 21 year-old visually impaired female. Her brother Sisay is 13 years old and sighted. Tsehay's and Sisay's parents are both disabled: Their mother has a paralyzed arm, while their father, like Tsehay, gradually lost his sight. Due to the impairments and the challenge to continue their rural work, the family impoverished. While Tsehay and Sisay's parents stayed in the countryside, they themselves came to Addis Ababa hoping to find better living circumstances. What they got were months of homelessness, living in a handmade tent of plastic sheets close to a church compound eating what church visitors would provide for them - no water, no electricity, no toilet and no security!
Back in the countryside, Tsehay did not receive any education – she is illiterate. Sisay, even though homeless, enrolled at a governmental school in Addis Ababa for which he paid through his earnings of shoe polishing after school.
Tsehay would like to start learning Braille and become engaged in income-generation to earn enough income for herself and Sisay and to take classes in the evening while Sisay would like to continue his secondary education. To fulfill their dreams, both need a safe and healthy environment to concentrate on their studies and not be held back by their struggle of surviving.
Fasika & Isubalew
Fasika grew up in the countryside and never went to school. Without education and due to her partially sightedness, she had no chances to gain her own income and so she finally came to Addis Ababa in hope of better chances to make her living. In the beginning she was a vendor selling corn and beans on the street, but she earned very little. After a while she found work as housemaid in a family where she was sheltered. But when she got pregnant against her own will she had to leave the family.
Being left without a home, work and money, Fasika and her son Isubalew were sheltered and supported in Together!'s emergency section of the Rehabilitative Shelter for Women with Visual Impairment and their Children. Since Fasika neither reads nor writes, it is difficult for her to find employment. And even though she would love to visit evening classes, currently it is impossible for her as she has to take care of her half-year-old baby.
Therefore, her only chance is to open a small business of her own: to bake and sell Injera, the pancake made of teff that is eaten by most Ethiopians three times a day as base of their diet with different sauces. With an Injera baker, Fasika could work from home half-days and sell the produced Injera in the afternoon in big quantities to nearby shops, from where again, the pancakes are sold piece by piece to individual customers. Even though, for the time being the income would be little, Fasika could create stable and sufficient income for herself and Isubalew until one day, both of them enroll at school.
Aster & Betelhem
Aster was born in Chincha, a village close to Arba Minch. Like most of the children with visual impairment who were not hidden by their parents and relatives at home, she joined one of the around ten exclusive boarding schools for the blind in Ethiopia where she was educated with her visually impaired male and female fellows up to grade six. Afterwards she joined a regular school in her hometown Chincha up to grade eight. Since in the rural areas educational means are very limited, especially for those children and youths with visual impairment, she was sent to Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa to continue education up to grade 12 and enter into institutions of higher education where she would also be able to get a stipend. While continuing her education in Addis Ababa she lived with relatives who paid for her expenses.
Like many other students with visual impairment, Aster had to struggle within the unequal educational system in Ethiopia with little study materials for people with special needs: She did not pass her examinations to enter grade 12 immediately. In the following year she passed the exam, but due to her prior failure her sponsors had already given up her sponosrship.
So having just completed High School she was left to find housing and a way to feed herself. For a while she lived together with a distanced friend. When she became pregnant shortly thereafter, she was forced to move out. Having no other means she lived on the streets for months begging to earn her bread. Eventually she gave birth on the street to her little daugther, Betelhem. Shortly after birth a streetworker found Aster and the infant. She was sheltered and fed for one month until the child and herself had recovered. Then she had to leave.
For a while Aster lived in cheap shelters, when she could gain enough money from begging, or on the street, if she could not get enough. With a second mouth to feed, she could not engage in vocational training or jobs that would generate some income for her and her child and so she spent the days with Betelhem tied to her back wandering through Addis Ababa in hope of gaining enough food and money for the day.
Since August, Aster and Betelhem are sheltered at Together!'s Rehabilitative Shelter for Women with Visual Impairment and their Children. In October, Aster was finally able to join Kotebe College for Teacher Education and Training extension classes, since now, in the evening, one or two of the other women at the shelter can take care of her daughter. In three years she will graduate and has good chances to become a school teacher, while Betelhem herself can enroll at school.
Wude
Wude is a visually impaired woman currently accommodated through the Rehabilitative Shelter for Women with Visual Impairment and their Children. Like many other visually impaired young women and men, she is enrolled at Kotebe College for Teacher Education and Training extension program. In order to pay for her course fees and afford her living expenses, she used to sell lottery on the street the whole day. The income was very little: about five to ten Birr per day. Her economic situation led to severe undernourishment. Wude became very sick and weighed only 29 kilogram. Due to her difficult health and living condition she had not been able to focus on her studies and her overall mental and physical well-being was declining steadily.
Now Wude follows a strict diet plan as well as medical check-ups. Not only her physical but also her mental capacities to study and actively shape her future are increasing. At Together!'s Project and Training Center, Wude takes complimentary training in English, health and independent living skills as well as entrepreneurship and attends her classes at Kotebe in the evening and on the weekend. Next year she will graduate and chances are good, that she will become employed as school teacher at a governmental school with steady and sufficient income to maintain a healthy and safe living environment of her own.
Berhane and Zion
Up to about a year ago, Berhane had been able to pay the expenses of her modest existence through the pocket money provided by a non-governmental organisation (NGO) providing vocational training in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa. When this NGO stopped its benefits from one day to the other, she was no longer able to come up for her living expenses, especially her house rent. To have a roof over her head, Berhane accepted work on public toilets – a destiny that she shared with a number of other visually impaired women.
In many districts of Addis Ababa there are public toilets for which the townsfolk can purchase tickets and make use of the service. Work on such public toilets is reserved for individuals who are especially impecunious: In return for cleaning the toilets and selling the tickets, the workers are provided with a small room in between the toilets, where they can live. They also receive a ridiculously small "salary" of 50 Ethiopian Birr (not even 2 Euro) each month.
Berhane did not live alone between the toilets: The at most 6 windowless square-meters she shared with Zion, a young, visually impaired student, who in fact is able to distinguish light and shade as well as shapes, but, besides her visual disability, is also of short stature. To cover costs for food and clothing, both women engaged in lottery selling and petty trade.
They were lucky and found a sponsor who supported them with 1000 Ethiopian Birr monthly, so that they no longer had to work on toilets of which one can only guess how many diseases they could catch, but could concentrate on continuing their education through extension classes in the evening.
Then, Zion had a car accident. While she was physically minorly hurt – losing one tooth and suffering from severe bruises, her blind friend, whom she was escorting, died the same night in the hospital. Besides having to overcome the loss of the close friend, Zion has to overcome her own trauma of the car accident – ever since, she is even more afraid to walk alone and the noises of cars scare her. To fully rehabilitate will be a long way to go in a crowded city like Addis Ababa and limited sight...