JACKSONVILLE — Education is everything for Selamawit Adugna Bekele.
The United Nations representative has seen education change lives in her native country of Ethiopia. She’s used it to help young women escape poverty.
The 29-year-old international activist spoke at Jacksonville State University on Friday afternoon about her work to improve educational opportunities in Africa. The event was part of a national tour to enlist communities to urge their political leaders to support initiatives that fight poverty around the world.
Bekele said that despite coming from a country where millions of women live in poverty, many of whom have married and borne children before they’re 18 years old, she became a teacher and later traveled the world advocating for others — all because her parents were educated and made sure she was too.
“Why am I different? It’s just because of education ... I believe every child in this world deserves that chance,” Bekele said.
Bekele began her career as a teacher in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, addressing the challenges students face in gaining access to a quality education in her country. She has spent her career supporting girls who are marginalized by problems of early marriage, risky migration and domestic violence.
Selamawit is a UN Representative for the Moremi Initiative, a Ghana-based Pan-African organization promoting young women’s leadership and social justice in Africa.
Bekele said she’s most proud of a program she helped organize that is creating a safe house for young women in forced arranged marriages to stay and escape domestic violence.
“Probably the most impactful thing I’ve done is giving the chance for early marriage survivors to go back to school,” Bekele said.
Bekele said as part of the effort, other organizations were enlisted to watch the women’s children so they would have time to get their primary educations.
Bekele said that in Ethiopia, primary education is free, however, there are other financial barriers keeping children from school. Bekele said she and other groups raise money to buy textbooks and other school supplies for children in need.
Bekele was at JSU as part of a nationwide tour organized by Results, an international, nonpartisan anti-poverty advocacy group that started a chapter at the university this fall.
Amanda Beals, global grassroots expansion manager for Results, based in Washington D.C., said at the event that her group is working with other organizations to bring countries together and raise money to fight poverty and improve education around the globe.
“There are ways you can put pressure on your government leaders to support these things,” Beals told audience members at the event. “Citizen voices and advocacy does make a difference.”
Beals said Results representatives would train JSU chapter members in the coming weeks in leadership and advocacy skills so they can better interact with congressional offices.
Kristen Carlisle, a biology major at JSU and the head of the university chapter, said she wanted to bring Results to campus because there is already great faculty and community members who can help and make a difference.
“I am more public health oriented … Results does a good job at looking at health, wellness, education and pulling it all together to help,” Carlisle said.