Yegna: The Girl’s Effect

While expecting Selome to converse with the audience, the evening started with a surprise from Yegna – meaning ‘ours’.  The five girls appeared singing to the crowd of about 130 men and women.  Selome later described that these girls were selected as a brand to show girl’s effect on Ethiopian economy, social and community life as well as personal development.  As study showed, a girl would feel safe and thrive to unleash her potential if she has five friends because that will be her support system.  So using virtual model friends, girls can identify themselves and address their issues, whether domestic violence, early marriage, education or isolation.  These girls are selected to be a brand for girls in Ethiopia.  They were chosen for their musical ability, personality to exhibit different characters and representing the girls’ community.

A couple of short documentaries were shown and Selome explained that according to the World Bank studies, investing in girls is smart. It is central to boosting development, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and allowing girls, and then women, to lead better and more productive lives. Yenga Project was initiated based on the “Smarter Economics” – Girls who are more educated earn more income, have greater access to information and services, are more likely to delay early marriage and childbirth, and to have healthier babies.  Hence investing in girls is smarter economics which is adding girls to development plans and deliver a huge economic.  According to WHO, if every Ethiopian girl who drops out of school was able to complete her education, that would add almost $4 billion USD to the economy, that is more than aid money Ethiopia receives each year.

The first question was, “So how do you do that?” 

“In the past two decades, Ethiopia has made remarkable strides in girls’ primary school attendance. However, enrollment of girls reduces significantly when they reach secondary and tertiary levels, due to family and cultural responsibilities.  According to DHS 2011, girls do an average of 28 hours’ work housework a week and one in five girls saying that they have no friends.”

“Yegna” is a brand designed to create social change in an environment where deeply entrenched attitudes and behavior hold girls back. It is the first teen brand for girls in Ethiopia. It is about girls but appeals to everyone.  To change things for girls, everyone needs to participate. That is why “Yegna” is the sound of all. By empowering girls to fulfil their potential and addressing cultural barriers, Yegna, not only incites girls to improve their lives through staying in school and solidifying friendships, but also create a positive social and economic ripple effect on families, communities, country and ultimately the world. This is the Girl Effect.”

“Yegna is designed to bring about attitude and behavior change at large scale towards girls through drama (role modeling and storytelling), talk show (real life stories and creating a debate) and music (brand anthems).  Yegna is implemented in Amhara and Addis Ababa recruiting a network of five hundred ambassadors (development army) across the regions.  The shows are sparking national conversations about girls through entertainment.”

Can you share with us any life testimony from the beneficiaries?

“During the talk shows, we collect addresses when they send short text messages.  Then in Addis Ababa, those who have access to mobile phones call and express that they have similar problems but do not know how to overcome it or have an issue of supply to address it; others say they can identify with the character on the show, and still others say they need resources to overcome. Hence, the talk show is fulfilling its purpose in terms of creating demand giving spotlight to girls’ issues.”

“In Amhara region, in one of the meetings of the Amhara Women Association, there was this woman who said that her daughter would like to attend extracurricular activities but was never allowed because she had to do house chores and it would not be safe for a girl to stay late after school and be involved in drama.  The mother later on realized that after she knew Yegna program, she said – ‘Now I see the value of being involved in extracurricular activities.’ We also conduct surveys on listenership.  We just did three series about 39 episodes so we are yet to evaluate the whole impact.”

What will happen when the selected five girls outgrow?  Wouldn’t it be better to substitute them with cartoons?

“It was thought over how people would associate the issues with the brand, instead of the five girls who are fallible.   Hence, pre-test was conducted with cartoons shown in Amhara region but it was automatically rejected.  Modifications were done and only side views of the actors were shown without seeing the faces.  Apparently, we realized that the Orthodox culture interpreted that only Satan is seen from silhouette so that was also unacceptable and hence dropped off immediately.  Since dramas were taken very seriously, the project was settled for disseminating messages through drama and music allowing identification of girls with the personified character.”

What are the challenges that you face?

“Every single day and every minute, there are challenges.  Diversified talents and skills and professions are included in this brand “Yegna”.  When one is doing a talk show, drama, music, outreach, etc., that diversity becomes the source of energy but it is also a source of discord.  This is a creative agency, a consortium of three organizations: One that does research, another does production and the third one does operation.  The cohesiveness and delivering as one is quite a challenge.  Second, the work ethics is also quite a challenge.  Excellence does not come easily so it is laboring hard to bring about what we desire to produce.”

In selecting media, you are using Radio, but TV seems to be stronger in transmitting the message in certain cases.  Why did you settle for radio?

“Financial limitation is the major factor.  It is much cheaper to use radio in terms of production.  The radio audience reach is also higher than TV.  Before scaling up to TV, the radio utilization needs to justify that it was worth it.”

Yegna is an excellent movement.  What are your plans to involve the core educational and political institutions to sustain the work and make lasting changes?

“Yegna is taking responsibility to create a dialogue, initiate conversation, and create demand to make changes, whereby girls are raising their voices and demanding that they be heard.  However, the problem is multi-faceted so Yegna is working with Amhara Education Bureau to transmit the messages through school mini-medias, have girls’ center in the library and avail computers to listen to the dramas. If this is found to be successful, this will be replicated in 7340 schools in Amhara region.  The laws are changed, the curriculum now shows gender equality, the legal and educational framework are in place, enrollment in primary schools is 50:50 or even better but the practical aspects of girls not being able to push it through secondary school remains a challenge. School environment are not conducive for girls, even if some remain in school, they would not attend attentively for they are preoccupied with house work and fear of reaching home safely.  Working with Amhara women associations has also brought about attitudinal changes.”

The characters’ names are all Amharic and not representative of the different religious and ethnic groups.  Is there a reason for that?

“The five names were Sara, Lemlem, Melat, Emuye and Mimi.  These were not particularly chosen based on ethnicity and religious affiliations.  They were simply picked up based on the current names used in Addis Ababa and Amhara region.  When they were auditioned, the selection was based on those who could sing and act at the same time.  However, it will be worth noting when selecting names for other regions.”

The target groups in the drama are girls so they listen to it enthusiastically for they identify with the characters.  What do adults take from that?

“One way or another we are related to girls. Those who do not have girls may not pay attention to the drama series but they have domestic girl servants who are in their teens.  In addition, when we talk about girls, we are talking about raising a nation.  It is not just gender equality or ‘a girl’s’ issues, it is also about citizenship and nation building.  As it was stated, girls are the world’s greatest untapped resource. Investments in girls have significant economic returns. These returns have the potential to uplift entire national economy.”

How would others support your initiatives as social responsibility?

“There are two ways to support. Yegna creates demand. When girls are aware and are motivated, they start to demand for services, so you can partner in providing the supply.  It could be through availing space for girls to converse, or having a hotline where girls can call.  Another way the project can be supported is on how to scale up Yegna and reach out to every girl.   So, anyone who would like to support Yegna program can start conversation with the team and the support could be determined afterwards.  For example, Ambo volunteered to put the Yegna brand label on their 25 trucks and five million bottles.  Those bottles that are distributed in Amhara region, will be reached to teachers, fathers, or community members who will see and start to ask about the brand.  So this will enable us to sensitize people about the girl’s issues.  Anyone who wants to support can do so by starting conversations.”

How much attention did you manage to attract from the media? How is Yegna’s reception – positive, negative or mixed? How much support or attention do you get from the Africa region apart from UK?

“The domestic media coverage is very positive though not consciously sought for media coverage.  However, events are launched and tours were made in Amhara region of 11 towns such as Endercha, Awi, Enjibira, where the people have been exposed to concerts.  That attracted media’s attention.  We have also done two press conferences, and all were very positive.  However, one UK newsletter, The Daily Mail presented as if UK’s tax payers money was spent unwisely on five Ethiopians ‘Spice Girls’. From asking on proper utilization of funds and democratic rights perspective, this was right to ask.  This is also taken positively for whenever good deeds are done in unconventional way, it shakes the status quo so one way or another the topic is being raised to be addressed.”

Working on girls is a wonderful thing but why did you leave out the boys? Shouldn’t boys get equal attention?

“It is true that boys need equal attention and without the partnership of male counterparts, the project cannot be successful.  However, this brand is about girls so very much willing to partner with those who work on boys for that is how we can make impactful changes.”

How do you ensure effectiveness and achievement of your goals?

“Monitoring and evaluation is designed as part of the project and there is regular feedback mechanism whereby the program’s effectiveness is addressed.  Moreover, the funding agency assigns external evaluators to ensure whether or not the project is achieving its intended objectives.  Awareness of Yegna program, messages audiences remember from the drama series were regularly assessed and at the end of the project impact will be assessed. In Behavioral Change Theory, it takes three years to see impact; hence at the end of the project, assessment will be conducted to see whether or not the project had impact in changing attitude and behavior.”

What is your desire for Yegna? How do you determine that you have succeeded in your project? What would you like to achieve at the end of the third year?

“I want Yegna to be an unstoppable movement, not a project that ceases after it phases out; but something that creates its own local context which sustains through life whereby each community adopts its own way of addressing the girl’s effect. If the project continues, I want it to be sustained by Ethiopians whether by the business community or other social community to make lasting impact.”

You said, if we reach out to nine million girls in the country and invest in their education, we save in billions.  What is your basis for this conclusion?

“The project was formed based on the World Bank studies.  They said when we bring about gender equality, it is smart economics because it is not just addressing human right issues but it is a question of a nation’s development and underdevelopment.  It is about investing in a country or not.  Girl’s Hub Ethiopia and the World Bank collaborated in this and it was noted that, women and girls are said to account for 50% of the population but girls are swallowed in ‘women’.  Hence, the economic value of investing in girls was singled out and studied and the 4 billion dollars would be gained if we keep girls in school.  So when the government works on Growth and Transformation plan, we can collaborate in the initiatives by keeping girls in the school and letting them include it in the second round revision.  This can be a good practice that other countries can emulate from our success stories.”

When you describe about girls completing school, which level are you referring to: primary, secondary or tertiary?

“We are referring to secondary school, however, since this is not a final economic analysis, further comments are needed by economists to provide both professional opinion as well as putting it in a lay person language for easy understanding and use.  Hence, this requires further interpretation and collaboration from others to provide professional comments on the document.”

Who are your audiences?  How about the role of men in this initiative?

“The target groups are girls from age 10-18.  It is to enhance their self-perception as well as the way society regards them. Without changing society’s beliefs, attitudes, and practices, the desired changes would not come.  Hence, concurrently working with mothers and having development army who support the initiative is very crucial.  Both male and female listen to mini media.  Next we will proceed to work with teachers, then we will pilot working with idirs in Ankober.  The role of men in this initiative is very critical hence they are included in “Yegna” for it is their issue as well, as secondary targets.”

What if Selome is not there to lead this program? Did you have leadership succession plan?

“Yes, there are quite a number of people who are capable of leading this program so succession is not at all an issue in the case of Yegna.”

Where do you want to see Ethiopian women next level?

“I want Ethiopia to be a place people can dream about.  Everything starts with dream so my wish for my country is to be a place where people’s imagination can take them to their heights.  We stop living when we stop dreaming.”

Selome concluded the conversation with what she has learned about brand.  She stated that brand is something that we connect the emotional and cultural aspects with the products or services we deliver.  Brand is no longer a product, a communication, nor a logo.  These are said to be signifiers.  Brand is an idea that we connect with what we provide.  Obama becomes the brand for “Change.”  In Ethiopia, we connect Haile Gebreselassie with “Yichalal” an idea of perseverance and possibility. EAL is associated with a sense of national feelings.  Yegna brand was created to convey the message of national issue being addressed like a wave of movement in relation to girls.

Nahu gave vote of thanks to Selome for the brilliant conversations and expressed that she should run for national leadership positions for she is a woman of that caliber. A participant also thanked AWiB for organizing such a session and bringing eminent personalities, who seem to be far away from the public, to the platform and making them accessible.

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