Tsehay Yitbarek: A tiny woman with immense power

In the month of October, AWiB spotlights Tsehay Yitbarek,a tiny woman with immense power.

Tsahai Yitbarek held leadership positions in organizations serving the needs of women and children, in Government and non-Government agencies, such as the Ministry of Labor and social Affairs, the YWCA and the Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia (FGAE), and UNICEF beginning in her mid 20’s.  Leaving Ethiopia for her own and her children’s sake in the late 1970’s, Tsahai worked for over twenty years at UNICEF in Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea {in East Asia}, Uganda and New York.  Ostensibly retired, she continues to work to improve the lives of women and children, by giving back to the community through volunteering on various boards and committees in Ethiopia. She re-established the YWCA 22 years after it had been shut down by the Derg as well as returning as a volunteer leader to serve FGAE. Celebrated for the life changing work she has done for women and children, World YWCA granted her Women of Distinction award.

A determined woman willing to take risks with a profound faith in God, Tsahai raised four children while holding positions that took her to far-flung countries and has never lost her optimism and energy.

Born the youngest of five children in Nekemte, Wollega, and having lost her Dad at an early age of 6 months, Tsahai was very close to her mother, from whom she learned strong values and life lessons.  Her father was a priest and a teacher in the church school, though her mother had no formal education beyond some spiritual teachings in the church, she was a great model and reference point to the rough and tough life-pathsof Tsahai. In Nekemte, and other provincial towns at that time, educating girls was not given much attention and Tsahai says that it was really an accident that she went to school.  When a cousin asked her mother if she could take her to school with her, her mother immediately said yes, because Tsahai was a naughty child who gave her mum tough time to fulfill her demands,hence her mother was glad of the help as suggested.  Though she was only three and a half or so, she began attending Princess Tsehay School in Nekemte with her cousin.

A cute tiny child, Tsahai attracted the attention of the German woman who headed the girls’ education program, who took her home and gave her biscuits.  She strongly encouraged her to learn and study; with such warm support, Tsahai loved school and was eager to learn.  Because she was small, her teachers used to pick her up, put her on the table and tell everyone that she was smart.  They were her greatest motivators, even as she grew older.   The school was co-educational and since she invariably stood first in her class, the boys were jealous and teased her relentlessly about her height and size; but she always proved that she was not inferior to any of the boys there.  She hopes she taught them something about gender equality even then.  Though there were many marriage proposals, at times it was her teachers who closely advised her mother and encouraged the continuation of her education.

Since there were no high schools in Nekemte at that time, she moved to Addis Ababa when she finished the 8th grade to attend Etege Mennen Boarding School in Addis Ababa.  A Swedish woman who ran the School of social work at the Addis Ababa University came to speak to the girls at her high school about the program. Tsahaiand her colleges became very interested to enroll at the School,where she first received her diploma in Social Work. Two years later she returned to earn her bachelor’s degree with great- distinction in 1968.Through achieving this goal her self-reliance and ability to grow and develop further was highly boosted. Issues that girls and women of the world suffer from were very apparent to her hence she continued to withstand against gender inequality at all levels.Why are girls tooshy, self-effacing and homebound? Why …..,? Why…..? Why>>>>? etc. Tsahai was able to overcome most of these cultural constraints and became strong.  She believes it was God’s will, acting in her and helping her to move forward.  By the time she graduated, she was married and had her first son.

Employed at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, Tsahai won a scholarship for training as a Probation Officer for one year in England and then she was appointed to work with young offenders.  The people she worked with were surprised to see a woman so petite and young working in a rather complex positionasking and answering questions freely in meetings.  At that time, young offenders were imprisoned with adult criminals; recognizing that this prevented young people from being able to reform themselves and become productive citizens. Her supervisors at the Ministry of Labor negotiated with the Ministry of Interior to establish a separate institution by the name of Remand Home and Training center for Boys. Tsahai was appointed as the Superintendent of the Center, which called for overall management skills, supervision, training and counselingservices.The process of punishmentgiven to children by parents as well as teachers, the need for the provision of respect to child right, treating children with love and understanding and patience, rather than physical punishment and insults, as was common thenneeded to draw special programsdesigned to help them become rehabilitated and to build harmony between them and their parents as well as the community at large.  The boys were offered academic studies and vocational training skills. To help build confidence, both parents and teachers were given advice about how to support the rehabilitation of the youngsters.  The number of young offenders that were served in the institution started at 50, but increased a lot more over a short time as the community became more aware of the value of rehabilitation.The number of female delinquents was very small and they were equally provided with probation services.

Through her experience as a probation officer, Tsahai learned that in the Ethiopian culture, many families tend not to pay much attention or respecttheir children’s needs and views. They are rather interested in educating their children mostly through application of punishment.  As a result, children tend to hide things from their parents.  She believes that parents should explain right and wrong to their children, rather than just punishing them – and should apologize to their children if they are the ones at fault.

Tsahai remembers being physically punished herself as a child and being unable to communicate openly with her mother asdesired.  One example was that Tasha’smother would always wake up and turn off the gas lamp that Tsahai used to study after her chores were finished and everyone else was asleep. Tsahai always thought that her Mom did that to save gas and she even reported that to one of her teachers who came to the house offering to provide gas for Tsahai.  Only later did she learn that her mother was actually afraid that something bad might happen to her at night.Tsahai used her experience as a probation officer in raising her own children. Whenever her husband hit the children without explaining, she would talk to him afterwards (when they were alone) & explain to him the importance of communicating with them to make them understand what they did wrong.

Earning a reputation as a confident and outspoken woman, Tsahai was recruited by the founders of the newly established Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). Mrs. Elizabeth Worqueneh and Princess Mahzente Hapte-Mariam,President and vice President of the Association at that time, requested the Minister to place Tsahai on loan for a year to develop and run the programs as well as act as a consultant of the YWCA. Although the duty was most challenging, the friendly and supportive leadership and the absence of bureaucracy in the organization was highly appreciated by Tsahai. After completing her assignment for a year, she signed a three-year contractto act as the Executive Director of the organization. The objective of the YWCA is to reach out to woman, young girls and children to get them Involved invocational training activities, such assecretarial training, home management, cooking, child care and nutrition, etc. and then finding appropriate job placements for them. The organization also provided day-care centers and playgrounds for needy children as well as Hostel services for young girls coming from rural areas in search of a better life.

Recruited by the volunteer founding members of the Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia, Tsahai become the first Executive Director of FGAE which is the first family planning organization, providing both clinical care and education in Ethiopia. At the time, many had the wrong impression that the goal of the organization was to decrease population; but in reality the goal was to help families plan before having children, so that they could improve their economic and social lives.  At the time, both infant and maternal mortality were very high and family planning was the key to help address these tragedies; teaching these goals and changing the attitudes of the community and policymakers was most challenging. A strong advocate of health and family planning, Tsahai remained Executive Director of the organization for 5 years.  During the Derg regime, when the workers union was formed, a faction of the union became quite hostile, accusing the organization of being funded by the western powers and being an agent to the CIA.This accusation resulted in Tsahai being taken to the Derg’s headquarters and being interrogated at gunpoint.Furthermore after a  through investigation of the organizations documents, it was proven that all the accusations were baseless. While Tsahai was facing this terrorizing ordeal at the work place, at home, her fourteen-year-old son was conscripted to join the red army alleging that he was eighteen years old. Due to all these complex circumstances, Tsahai was concerned for her family’s well being and was forced to leave FGAE and join UNICEF.

At UNICEF, after working for about four years as a Program Officer in Ethiopia, Tsahaicompeted& won an international position. She was appointed as UNICEF’s representative in Papua New Guinea (a small island near Australia).She opened the first UNICEF’s office in the country and developed their first five-year plan of operation.  She sent her two older children to boarding school in India and took her two younger children with her to Papua New Guinea.Although he came to visit, her husband did not live with them, preferring to remain in Ethiopia.  This was a hardship post filled with it’s own challenges & adventures.  Living alone with her two younger children, she had to be strong, alert and cautious.

After completing her assignment in Papua New Guinea, Tsahai was transferred to UNICEF headquarters in New York.She worked in New York at various capacities on Gender and Development issues and supervision of country offices.

Committed to continuous improvement and personal career growth, Tsahai requested UNICEF for a study leave to pursue a post-graduate degree in Columbia University, which she was granted permission.With the wealth of most relevant experience and outstanding academic record, the faculty accepted her immediately. It is a matter of great pride to her that she was able to earn her Master’s Degree in Public Health from Columbia University in New York within one year, while she was still working and sending her kids to school.  She fulfilled her mission and was promoted to Uganda as UNICEF’s officer to promote integrated basic services programs in the Western Region. While working in Uganda, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Tsahai underwent asuccessful surgery in New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and took a six-month break to recover. She continued to work for one more year at the head quarters and then retired at the age of 55. By that time, all four of her children had graduated from college and were pursuing further growth.

Returning to Ethiopia some time after the Derg government had been overthrown, she wanted to continue to help her countryas volunteer, pursuing causesthat she is passionate about.  First, she was determined to re-establish the YWCA, which was closed by theDerg for 22 years. She and some of her friends began working in her house; and, with funds they contributed personally, they were able to secure a small office and a license from the government to re-open YWCA. After revitalizing & structuring the YWCA, for 5 years, Tsahai handed over the presidency position to the newly elected president despite the overwhelming plea for her to continue by the general assembly. Tsahai believes that power and knowledge should be shared & transferred from generation to generation. Tsahai is now the Patron of YWCA and serves on the Advisory committee.

Tsahai has travelled wide and far around the globe, for conferences, trainings, and meetings and as a free-lancer and worked with a number of international and national colleagues. She is bold and willing to take risks, as she has in so many ways in her life. She believes that the qualities she has that have helped her succeed are flexibility, focus, determination and bravery.  She thinks carefully and deeply about her work and her decisions, never underestimating what it takes to be successful.  She always sees the positive side of opportunities and doesn’t allow fear to threaten her decisions.

Tsahai is concerned that globalization is overriding some good traditional Ethiopian cultures, faith and good manners.Believing that a country is characterized or defined by its unique cultural values and ethical standards of behaviors, she regrets that the culture of respect for elders is being eroded. She is also concerned about what she sees as an increased tendenciesof lying, not getting work done properly & in time, not showing up as promised for meetings on time,making empty promises etc.….These types of behaviors may stain our substantive culture.

Tashafeels happy about the positive changes made in policies supporting female education, increase of age at marriage, and the overall improvements made in relation togender equality and would like to advice young women and girls, family members and the whole society to take full advantageof the positive changes and ensure the growth and developmentof themselves and that of their country, Ethiopia.Remember that women and men are all created equal for good purposes.  Being a woman is a great challenge and with needed education and liberation she could make a great difference in the status of her life, her family`s lives and that of the nation. Respect yourselves and your capabilities,learn moreand be updated with important issues, read, study and use your time efficiently.  Have a plan for yourself; today you are here; plan for where you want to be after one year, two years, four years – and then focus.  Love your work; work passionately and aim to help others.  Respect your customers or those you serve.

Today, Tsahai is proud and feels fulfilled about what she has achieved and who she is; she thanks God for all her success. Tsahai is happy that her four children are all successful, loving and well settled. She is the grand mother of  eight grand children(4 girls and 4 boys) that make her life ever so sweet.

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