- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

DEBARK, Ethiopia

For Biset Chanie, a graying father of four, no humiliation is worse than feeling compelled by poverty to scatter children he no longer can afford to feed and clothe.

Mr. Chanie pulled his two sons from school and hired them out to farmers in other villages, relying on their occasional and meager remittances — sometimes a bag of grain, sometimes a few birr, Ethiopia’s currency.

Now, with little rainfall this growing season, Mr. Chanie fears having to make an even more difficult decision: Whether to send his 15-year-old daughter to find work as a farmhand or as a servant in another man’s house.

“I don’t want to send my children to work for other people, but I have to. It makes me so sad I feel like crying. But what other choice is there?” said Mr. Chanie, 50, who has struggled to eke out a living for his family of five on a tiny, worn-out plot of land on the outskirts of Debark.

Tiny farms, big families

About 85 percent of the roughly 74 million people in this Horn of Africa nation subsist on farms no bigger than 1 or 2 acres — hardly enough to feed an ordinary Ethiopian family of seven, much less turn a profit.

Just one dry season is enough for many parents to send some of their children away in search of jobs, hoping their paltry earnings can keep the rest of the family afloat.

Across much of Africa, childhoods are cut short by poverty as children barely in their teens are forced into adult roles, supporting their families as farm laborers, house servants, street vendors and even soldiers. At least a third of Africa’s children under 14 are working, with many of them forsaking their education to earn daily wages, U.N. researchers say.

The scourge of AIDS has ended the childhoods of millions of children, who are plucked from primary schools and pushed into the labor force after one or both of their parents die from AIDS-related illnesses.

Lack of schooling

“There’s a need for many of these children to work to help the family, but it shouldn’t be exploitative or keep them from getting an education, which is often the case,” said Alessandro Conticini, Ethiopia’s child-protection director for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund.

A significant factor contributing to the surge in working children in Ethiopia, some analysts say, is that fertility rates among its women outpace the fertility of the soil.

In much of rural Ethiopia, where more than a third of the population is Orthodox Christian, it is not uncommon for a woman to bear eight to 10 children in her lifetime, often having her first children while still in her teens.

Even though Ethiopian families remain big, many farmers say that prolonged drought, deforestation and soil erosion have led to smaller and smaller crop yields, making it more difficult for them to feed their offspring.

“In Ethiopia, children are seen as a kind of wealth. Many families will have babies even if they are unable to feed them,” said Abayneh Telake, mayor of Gondar in northern Ethiopia, which has a program that allows hundreds of working children to attend school part time.

No. 1 in orphans

Ethiopia has the world’s largest population of orphans. About 4.6 million of its children having lost their parents to AIDS and other diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria, according to a 2004 study by the United Nations and Ethiopia’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

Many children, whether orphaned or driven from their families by poverty, drift toward urban centers in search of work or handouts from strangers.

More than half a million homeless children roam the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

Many sleep in trash-strewn alleys or abandoned buildings, often vulnerable to sexual assaults and other forms of exploitation. Children as young as 4, their noses runny, their clothes dirty and tattered, weave through the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the main boulevards of Addis Ababa, selling packets of paper napkins for one birr apiece, or about 12 cents.

But most street children have nothing to sell. They resort to begging, usually targeting tourists with their tiny, upturned hands and persistent, heart-wrenching pleas for aid: “Stomach zero, I’m very hungry,” or, as is becoming more often the case, “Mother dead, father dead, one birr.”

Young without hope

The growing number of street children in the capital has become a security concern for Ethiopian officials, who suspect opposition parties of recruiting them for violent street protests like those against last May’s disputed elections.

“Someone referred to the unemployed youth here as ‘combustible material.’ It’s a problem that has to be addressed quickly,” Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in a recent interview. “Young people without hope are always a source of instability.”

The number of street children is expected to climb in coming years as more and more youth gravitate to the cities, leaving behind farms that have been in their families for generations but now are overworked and overgrazed. They leave behind exhausted fathers who no longer encourage their children to follow in their footsteps.

“In the days of my grandfather and my father, the land was fertile. It was never a question that we would not be farmers ourselves,” said Mr. Chanie, his arms folded around his youngest daughter, Destayehu, 10.

“But now the land is tired,” he said, “and it’s becoming harder to keep our families together.”

Dictatorship a factor

Ethiopia is one of the world’s least-developed nations, and nature and politics are equally to blame. Many parts of the country are prone to drought, causing cycles of food shortages that sometimes lead to famines.

But politics has played a role in exacerbating the effects of droughts and famines.

During the early 1980s, Ethiopia’s Soviet-backed ruler, Mengistu Haile Mariam, ignored warnings of a looming famine in regions of the country where most of the population opposed his government. Many of the estimated 1 million Ethiopians who starved to death in the 1984 famine could have been saved had Gen. Mengistu stepped in earlier.

Enmity continues

The two-year war over slivers of land in the country’s northern frontier cost Ethiopia more than $1 million per day, as well as the support of foreign donors. Development projects stalled, including plans to build modern irrigation systems and paved roads to help farmers bring their crops to market.

Recently, the fragile, five-year-old truce between the two countries has frayed. Political unrest has rocked Ethiopia’s capital since May’s disputed elections led to violent street protests and the arrests of thousands of demonstrators.

Once again, Western donors are pulling back, with a $375 million aid package put on hold after the imprisonment of more than a hundred opposition leaders, including the mayor of Addis Ababa.

Government owns land

Opposition parties say that much of Ethiopia’s poverty and its effect on children is exacerbated by the government’s ownership of the land — a vestige of the Mengistu era. Opposition groups seek privatization of the land, which would make it easier for farmers to form cooperatives or acquire enough land to create profitable farms.

Privatizing land in Ethiopia is a bad idea, says Mr. Zenawi, who argues that most struggling farmers eagerly would sell their farms and flock to the cities, creating more instability. To ensure a brighter economic future for the country’s children, Mr. Zenawi says Ethiopia needs more industry, not land reform.

Raymond Thibodeaux is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist on assignment for Cox Newspapers..

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