Netsanet Mengistu Almaw: 2005 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee

Netsanet Mengistu is the founder and executive director of Progynist, a non-profit non-government organization committed to improving the lives and status of women; in conjunction with Progynist, she also established Meklit Microfinance Institution (MMFI), a local microcredit bank serving the economic empowerment primarily of women.  Now 15 years old, the organization continues to promote education for women and girls, water and sanitation, economic empowerment and social development for women, operating in Addis Ababa, Gurage Zone in Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Regional State (SNNPR), and in Wolliso, Kersa and Malima Woredas of the southwest zone of Oromiya.  One of 1000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, Netsanet’s commitment to improving her country has been lifelong.

Born in Assosa Town in the former region of Wollega, Netsanet attended Etege Menen School in Addis Ababa, completing her education at the Business School of Addis Ababa University, where she received a BA in Business and Administration.  She had hoped to join Alemaya University because she had always wanted to become a farmer, but at the time there was no degree program for women except in home economics.

The Ethiopian student movement was gaining momentum when she joined Addis Ababa University and Netsanet became actively involved in movement for change and was among those temporarily de-registered by the imperial regime from the university in 1974.  Employed in the Ministry of Interior, Department of Municipalities, Netsanet traveled extensively throughout the country, learning at close hand about the desperate conditions of people outside Addis and confirming her commitment to fundamental change.   As the Derg military regime became more and more repressive, she worked underground as a member of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party in opposition to the Derg for four years from 1976 to 1980, when she was arrested and imprisoned for six years.  Life in prison was extremely difficult, though Netsanet considered herself lucky to have been imprisoned rather than killed.  Deciding to make the best of her prison experience, she says that she really grew as a human being there, learning a great deal about people of all kinds of backgrounds and maturing mentally.  In prison, she actually had the opportunity to go to school, both teaching and studying herself; at the time, the prison had an extensive collection of books from all over the world and she counts her six prison years as the best education she could have received and a powerful force in shaping her work and life today.

Released in 1986, she began working for International organizations, including the Swedish International Development Association.  Longing for the oppressive Derg regime to be overthrown, she was heartened by the victory of the EPRDF forces and, believing that she shared the same vision for the future as the new provisional government, she accepted an appointment as Vice Minister for Foreign Trade working there for two years.   It became clear that she had disagreements with some of the directions of the then transitional government which apparently displeased her bosses. The government suspended her without explaining the reasons.  Following this, she requested the transitional government for an official termination of her assignment.

After obtaining the necessary clearance from the government, she did some soul-searching about where she could be most effective in providing service to her country. She ultimately found her calling in the non-profit sector, working on women’s issues.  Though she had neither money nor equipment to start an organization, she had the dreams and the heart for it and formed Progynist as a registered non-profit in 1997.  She felt that during her days in the student movement and later with the EPRP, a great deal of analysis about the situation of women had been done, but had remained on shelves and had little impact in improving women’s status or leadership opportunities.  And on her release from prison, she felt that the thinking and capacity of women to enter the public arena had actually diminished.  Though the Derg had done some work to address women’s issues, their efforts had not affected the grassroots.  She believed that significant change could come about if a sustained effort was undertaken to empower women to overcome the social and cultural barriers that faced them.

Deciding to focus on the four pillars of education, health, clean water and sanitation, business development; Netsanet and the other women with whom she launched Progynist selected one woreda in Addis for their initial activities, the former Woreda 26 on the way to Mercato, now known as Lideta.   Getting to know the community, they found that problems were much more severe than they had thought and that they needed to focus on girls’ education in addition to women’s literacy and on economic empowerment for mothers through a savings and credit program. Water scarcity and poor sanitation were even worse than they had imagined.  Water, sanitation, children’s education and women’s economic empowerment became the priorities.  Today the organization, Progynist, works in three regions, Addis Ababa, the Gurage Zone in the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples region, and Oromiya region, building many schools, health facilities and water and sanitation facilities throughout the areas in which they work.

In response to the prevalence of harmful traditions oppressing women and children in the areas where they worked, the organization also established Gender Justice Centers, training women paralegals to address harmful traditions and organizing communities to recognize the problems and combat abuse.  Establishing crisis centers for abused women and children in Addis Ababa, Wolliso, Emdibir and Butajira, the organization was vocal in the past in its efforts to educate the public and to involve the police and the criminal justice system in opposing violence against women and children.  Unfortunately, they have had to end their advocacy on these issues and their work with the police and the courts under the new Charities and Societies law, but continue to offer supportive counseling and medical care to victims of abuse.  Celebrating their 15th anniversary in 2012, the organization has reached well over a million people through its programs and educated more than 8,000 children in its alternative basic education centers.

Netsanet is especially proud of the organization’s work in education.  Many of the children from rural areas who have started their education with Progynist’s schools system have reached university level.  Progynist is in the process of building two story building to serve as hostel in Butajira town for rural and urban needy girls who live very far from school to enable them to continue their education.  Progynist also has established clubs and continuously trains teachers to support the kids with uninterrupted schooling.  In addition to academic subjects, Progynist teaches students to express themselves freely, to be confident and to stand up for their rights– lessons that will serve them well throughout their lives.  Similarly, part of the curricula was to teach victims of sexual and physical abuse, both male and female, about their rights, and provide them with tools such as the use of family discussion, related resources available and about the responsibilities of institutions to support them. Often, once healed themselves, former victims begin to work to help others.  Unfortunately, again, Progynist’s work in these areas has been curtailed under current law.

Netsanet believes that the struggle to achieve equal rights and treatment for women is a long-term process.  Across regions and across classes, women are vulnerable because everywhere the prevailing social view is that women are inferior.  Even discussing issues of women’s equality or fair treatment of women is difficult.   Deep-rooted attitudes and practices will take a long time to change, but the struggle is important and needs significant work and energy.  Under current law, Progynist, now an Ethiopian resident charity can no longer be part of leading this struggle; but the struggle should continue. She believes women must share advice and resources with each other and help each other resist violence, rather than being silent about what happens in the home.  Most women stay within the circle of family, spiritual associations and social associations like idirs, helping each other when they die, but not when they are alive.  Women need a forum for discussion about their own issues; they need to decide it’s important and be willing to spend time and money on making change.

Netsanet’s advice to young women and girls: Know that being a woman is a matter of pride; women are not inferior.  Don’t compromise your rights.  Be careful in your marriage; help and respect your husband, but don’t accept violence.    Start from the beginning of your marriage refusing violence, because if you don’t it will only get worse.  Adopt the culture of giving; each of us has a moral and spiritual responsibility to give to others.  With a little help, another person may accomplish great things, and there are many who have gone nowhere just because they have never received help or encouragement from others.

Netsanet is AWiB’s member and has been a great supporter in the selection process of “Women of Excellence”. She served as one of the five independent judges to tackle the most difficult part of the process—coming up with the winner. AWiB salutes this tireless activist and is appreciative of the existence of people such as Netsanet and feels privileged to shine our light on this generous soul and spot her in action.

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