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Episode 023: Refugees, Youth, and Gender Equity in Ethiopia with Kiya Gezahegne


Kiya Gezahegne is a feminist researcher and lecturer specializing in migrant studies, adolescent research and gender policy. She is passionate about harnessing the power of research to drive more supportive policies for women, girls, youth and refugees across Ethiopia. Kiya currently serves as the in-country qualitative researcher for Gender and Adolescents: Global Evidence (GAGE), and also contributes to the Ethiopian National Women’s Policy.

In this special World Refugee episode, Kiya shares her insights into the Ethiopian refugee experience (including hardships specific to women and girls), the importance of adolescent empowerment in driving nationwide change, and the role of research in transforming gender equity paradigms nationwide.


  • How GAGE, the world’s largest study on gender in adolescence, is working to empower youth in developing countries
  • What inspired Kiya to specialize in refugee research and elevating the struggles of migrants
  • Why so many Ethiopian migrants are fleeing poverty, ethnic conflict and political repression to seek refuge in the Middle East, Europe and the States – and how their destinations are influenced by an underground industry of migration “brokers”
  • The most common hardships faced by women along these migration routes, including sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies, physical abuse and financial pressures from the family they left behind
  • The importance of adolescent-specific research in driving nationwide change
  • Kiya’s work with the Ethiopian National Women’s Policy and its impact on gender equity


Website: www.gage.odi.org

Linked In: Kiya Gezahegne


Kiya Gezahegne is an experienced feminist researcher and lecturer based at the Social Anthropology at the Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. She has been involved in ethnographic research on a range of adolescent related areas including education, health and nutrition, voice and agency, psycho social well-being, economic empowerment and bodily integrity. Her other research interests include international migration, refugee studies, gender policy, religious identity, borderland conflict, marginalization and slavery in the contemporary world. She also contributes to policy processes including the analysis of the Ethiopian National Women’s Policy. She has authored several publications related to adolescents including recent publication on “Adolescent sexual and reproductive health in Ethiopia and Rwanda: a qualitative exploration of the role of social norms,” among others. She is in-country qualitative researcher for Gender and Adolescents: Global Evidence (GAGE) project run by ODI (Oversees Development Institute).

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Jessica Williams 0:02
Welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast, a show about breaking barriers for women and girls around the world. I'm your host, Jessica Williams, Chief Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. At Days for Girls, we believe in a world where periods are never a problem. We are on a mission to shatter the stigma and limitations associated with menstruation by increasing access to sustainable period products and menstrual health education for all people with periods.

Today's episode is with Kiya Gezahegne. Kiya is an experienced feminist researcher and lecturer based at the social anthropology department at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. She has been involved in ethnographic research on a range of adolescent related areas including education, health and nutrition, voice and agencies, psychosocial well being, economic empowerment and body integrity. Her other research interests include international migration, refugee studies, gender policy, religious identity, border land, conflict, marginalization and slavery in the contemporary world. She also contributes to policy processes, including the analysis of the Ethiopian National Women's Policy. She has authored several publications related to adolescence, including her recent publication on adolescent sexual and reproductive health in Ethiopia and Rwanda. She is currently an in-country qualitative researcher for Gender and Adolescents: Global Evidence. The acronym for that is GAGE, and this is a project run by ODI Overseas Development Institute. Today is a special episode in honor of World Refugee Day. Thank you for tuning in. Now, let's go on to the show.

Since I interview people from all over the world, I often ask this question, Where are you calling in from today?

Kiya Gezahegne 1:48
Addis, from Ethiopia. For those of for those who don't know where Ethiopia is, it's in the eastern part of Africa, in the heart.

Jessica Williams 1:57
Okay, awesome. Are you originally from there?

Kiya Gezahegne 2:00

Jessica Williams 2:01
You work for GAGE. And so I thought we might we might start out by talking about that organization. Can you tell us more about the mission of GAGE?

Kiya Gezahegne 2:11
Yes, so GAGE is an abbreviation for Gender and Adolescents: Global Evidence. It is the largest global study on adolescents. It follows around 20,000 girls and boys in developing countries including Ethiopia, Rwanda, Lebanon, Jordan, and tries to understand what works to enhance adolescent capabilities in empowerment in different teams. So we work on economic empowerment, bodily integrity, housing, nutrition, including SRH and menstrual health management. And also physical well-being and psychosocial well-being and voice and agency. So we have these six capability domains where we focus on and try to understand the experience of adolescents across seven countries. Right? It's a longitudinal study that stays for, if I'm not mistaken, five to seven years.

Jessica Williams 3:17
Okay, so are you…following the same individuals over the course of a five to seven year period?

Kiya Gezahegne 3:27
Yes. So we have what we call nodal cohorts. So they are the girls and boys just before or throughout the research period, and we started with girls of age 10 to 12, so that by the end of the research, they will be come youths – so they will be within the age range of 17 and 19. And so we can see their development through adolescence.

Jessica Williams 3:52
Okay, and one of your focuses is on migration and refugees. And in honor of World Refugee Day, I would like to focus on this topic. Before we dive in, though, can you explain the difference between a migrant and a refugee? Like I know it's a fine line, but can you kind of give us the subtle difference?

Kiya Gezahegne 4:15
So as an anthropologist, I always struggle to give that definition, because for me, this is more or less a definition that was given by practitioners. But simply speaking, a migrant is someone who has agency and who decides to move and a refugee is a person who is forced to leave their country for different reasons. So it's more or less a question of having the decision to initiate the mobility. But I mean, I don't want to call myself a migrant scholar, but at least as an anthropologist who has been working on migration and refugees for for some time, I don't believe that there is that much difference unless you want this categorization for for policy implementation, or for problem implementation.

Jessica Williams 5:23
So this is a very specific research focus for you. Why did you get into this work? Like what what made you want to focus on migrants and refugees, particularly from Ethiopian countries, going to parts of the Middle East and Southern Europe?

Kiya Gezahegne 5:44
Yep. I actually was not intending to get into this study, until I did a research for Overseas Development Institute, ODI. And it was actually on adolescents and young women who lived in a border town between Ethiopia and Sudan called Metemma. And being at the border line, it gives you a broader picture…how people struggle to leave the country. It didn't make sense why people want to leave Ethiopia, because I was born in Addis. And I don't want to say I was one of the privileged ones, but at least, I have not passed through the hardship that many people go through. So I was blind on that aspect of our community's struggle. And so it was really eye opening for me to see how many people leave the country illegally through that desert. And the reason why they choose to leave. And I heard the story of a girl who was 19. And I was actually 19, when I started doing research, and I was interviewing her and she was of the same age. And she was telling me her story, going to the Middle East, being raped by her employers, and it was very traumatizing. And so I was interested to learn more and see where I can help. At least I mean, I can bring out the voice of these migrants and make this issue visible to those who are not aware of the hardship and difficulties migrants and refugees go through.

Jessica Williams 7:31
So can you break it down for us? Why are people leaving Ethiopia to go to places like the Middle East? Is there a connection between Ethiopia and the Middle East and Southern Europe?

Kiya Gezahegne 7:48
It's a choice that they have to make based on what's available. So I mean, for most of the most of the research that I have done, the choice of the country that most people choose from Ethiopia is the States or Canada or Australia. But I mean, having access to that route is very difficult, and also very expensive. And so the easiest one where you can get money in a short period of time with a better salary is the Middle East and Sudan, Egypt, across the Mediterranean to Europe. And Europe is usually used or intended to be used as a stepping stone for secondary migration to the States, particularly, but many end up staying in different European countries, particularly in the Scandinavian countries and in in countries such as England and France. But the reason, another reason why people choose to go to Middle East is also the availability of jobs. So there is a high demand for domestic workers. And we have a long relationship of people moving to the Middle East, if not at this scale, for trade-off for any other reason. I mean, the cultural similarity, particularly for instance, in countries such as Yemen, and also the ease in learning Arabic, makes it preferable for many girls to move to the Middle East. And we have a long history of migration from here. So that is where the trend builds up.

Jessica Williams 9:36
And what are the conditions like in Ethiopia that a lot of these migrants are trying to get away from?

Kiya Gezahegne 9:45
It depends from where these migrants are. So in some places, most of the migrants give the reason of poverty for them to leave the country. And yes, I mean, It depends on the scale of poverty you want to look at, but almost I can say all of them, say that it's poverty and lack of job opportunities here in the country that forces them to leave, and try to have a better life in other in another country. But we also have beyond this economic reason, we also have political refugees and political migrants, as we call them, who flee away from Ethiopia, because of the repression in the previous regime, and also conflict in some parts of the country – a bit ethnic or otherwise. So these are the major ones. People are leaving the country.

Jessica Williams 10:53
That makes sense. So I again, I'm sorry, I feel like I'm asking really dumb questions. But I am learning so much as the host of this podcast. And I feel like a lot of our listeners are kind of going on a journey with me as well. And I'm sitting here thinking, why not just go to another country in Africa? Seems like it would be much closer, and would be an easier trip than trying to go, you know, all the way across the water and through countries where there might be even more difficulty. So do you understand why?

Kiya Gezahegne 11:39
Yep, that was also my question when I started to study migration and refugee issues. I mean, we have Kenya right next to us. And we don't need a visa to go there. And also Uganda, which has a good economic standing in East Africa. So I also asked them the same question. But that problem is, migrants are usually from the countryside. And so they don't have that information of where they should go and what they need to do, to get a better life. And so they are just following, as I've told you, it's all about having that opportunity or option for them. And that is usually through brokers. And it's the only information that they can get, and the brokers need the networks to be established. And most of the time, that broker network is established to the Middle East, to Sudan, Egypt, Libya, and Europe, and also South Africa. Actually, that is a third route that we have, where we have a majority of Ethiopians as migrants and refugees. But I mean, they are going all the way through to South Africa, passing through different African countries, because they don't know how to make a life in those countries. And I think it's more to do with lack of information in knowledge of the opportunities that they have in the different countries, and also the lack of network and jobs available in those countries that this migrants are aware of.

Jessica Williams 13:21
Hmm, that, yeah, so it's almost like a business. For a lot of these.

Kiya Gezahegne 13:26
It's actually it's an industry. We like to call them a migration industry, because it's not a simple economic transition. It's not simply calling a transaction that's going on here. It differs on where you're from, and who you are as a person. Because the chart that the brokers ask, differs whether you are Somali, Eriterean, Amhara, because they know or assume they know how much you're willing to pay him. So the cost, for instance, to go from here, Ethiopia – but from the border, not from the origin hometown, but from the border with Sudan to Libya – can go up to $6,000 per person. This is the minimum that they ask. So it's very, I mean, the economic transaction that they have within the network is very much like an industry.

Jessica Williams 14:28
In Ethiopia, a lot of the migrants, do they have to have some sort of person helping them navigate all the different transportation and all of that stuff?

Kiya Gezahegne 14:40
Yep. I mean, some migrants prefer to do it alone. But as you know, I mean, the route is from Ethiopia through Somali, Somalia or Djibouti to Yemen, and then to Saudi, or you can go from here to Sudan and Egypt, Libya and then Italy. So we are talking about a long journey. And we have the third one, which goes all the way from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, to South Africa. So we are talking about a long journey that can take months sometimes. And so I mean, they can take, for instance, they can travel without a broker, up to some point that they are aware of, or they can be in groups and help each other in navigating through these routes. But also, I mean, the need for brokers comes in when you want to avoid police and other law enforcing bodies. And also, I mean, for instance, if you don't know Sudan, you can get lost even at the border, because we are talking about a desert where you have no particular route to take. And, for instance, if you are talking about refugees, for instance, the ones who are Eritereans and Somalis, they can easily go up to the border, here in Ethiopia. But beyond that, it's difficult for them to know where to go, how to get there. And also, in some ways, it's very ironic. But having brokers and being with a broker, within a broker network helps you to be safe in in some cases. And so it's also a safety issue. Even if we hear of brokers abusing migrants and torturing them, it's also on the other side, a safety mechanism for migrants to reach to their destination.

Jessica Williams 16:38
So a lot of what you focus on is the challenges women are facing as they make these these crossings and migrate to other countries. What are the top challenges that you're seeing women struggle with, as they make this journey?

Kiya Gezahegne 16:53
It's difficult to list a few of them because it depends on the individual, and also on where they are going through, as I've said earlier. Because Eretrians face different…I mean, there are common challenges that most migrants and refugees face, but it also differs based on who you are. As Eritreans, Somalis or how old you are sometimes. So it's really difficult to say, these are the challenges they face. But if I have to, I would say the first one is if they are going illegally, through what we call the desert route, then the most challenging one is being raped. Which is very sad for me to hear, from the stories of these women, is that they expect such kind of sexual violence, whether on the route or in places where they work. Because these women usually work as [inaudible]. And so they expect such kind of violence from either their employers or migrants who are traveling with them or brokers. I mean, the concern of them being abused by fellow migrants is pretty much less than facing sexual violence by brokers or their employers, but they expect it. So they take precautions to not get pregnant because they know it's coming. And so I met a 14 year old girl and her friend who took contraceptives before they left their home. It's very sad to hear that, for a 14 year old to expect to be raped and take that measure to protect herself from unwanted pregnancy.

And the other challenge they face, particularly Ethiopians living in the Middle East, is physical abuse and violence that can go up to days by their employers, because there is no accountability mechanism in most of the countries. And it's difficult to trace these migrants as they go illegally, and so the government or the embassy there cannot put the person accountable for that injury or get the justice that these girls need. And that is also the major challenge that we hear most of the time for migrants who go to the Middle East. And beyond that, another challenge is as women and as girls, they have the responsibility to support their families. And so most of the money they make abroad, they send it all back home. Unlike the men, and so when they come back after let's say, five or seven years, they have nothing here. And all that money is invested in their parents, in their family members, in their relatives, and they have nothing to show. And so I mean, after facing that much hardship and difficulty and staying abroad. For that, for those years, they come back empty handed. And they ask the government for support, and people usually don't understand them because they see them as returnees, or as we call them here diasporas. And so you don't expect people who have been abroad to come back empty handed, and so they face that challenge of not being understood by their community and also by their families, and so they have to start from scratch when they are back home. Yeah.

Jessica Williams 21:03
Oh, that is heartbreaking. Your work sounds really, like difficult to is to swallow. Oh my gosh. So I know that you've contributed to some of your work to the Ethiopian government, like the Ethiopian National Women's policy. How do you think your work at GAGE is making a difference for women and adolescents who – I know you're specifically focused on refugees and migrants – but the research that you're doing, how is it influencing change in the country?

Kiya Gezahegne 21:42
I got into this research breeding some kind of change. I mean, I'm an [inaudbile], but I try to show people that this is the reality that we are living in. And when these are citizens of Ethiopia, we need to support them in one way or another. And so with GAGE, what is interesting is that usually when research is being done, we don't have a problem of data or understanding the reality, particularly among governments or bodies. But they don't focus on adolescents. And adolescents, I mean not just in Ethiopia, but around the world, are the most neglected categories within the research in government interventions. And so it was very interesting to see how much we need to work on adolescents to see change within the country, because they are the ones who grow up to be adults, and then take responsibilities. And so as I told you earlier, we have different capability domains to try to study what works and what doesn't work. But we are not taking the top down approach. We are going down to adolescents and talking to them, not just the girls and the boys, but also to their parents, to their teachers, to their community members, to see what can change and how the government or any other organization can contribute to change the life of adolescents. Not just in relation to migration, but also in any aspects of their lives and make a better country for them. That's how we are working with GAGE. We are engaging different ministries, we have Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, so that can understand what is coming out of the research.

And also we have different organizations. And as a result of the baseline studies that we did, we now have a program called Act With her, implemented by Pathfinder and CARE Ethiopia. And they do awareness raising, and they give lessons to girls and boys to bring social norms change, and also provide some material support and also systems change within the different selected areas here in the country. So it's not just research that we are doing, but it also has some kind of action research in implementation of programs. which you mentioned the national women policy. And that, actually, was not under GAGE – I also work with an organization called [inaudible]. And it's a research organization that is based in Australia, but it also has an office here in Ethiopia. And it's a feminist organization, and it's entirely led by women and we have, a majority of the researchers are women here. And we try to promote inclusive research, not just women and girls, but also issues of disability other marginalized groups of the community.

And we got the opportunity, and I am very grateful for that opportunity, to review the National Women's Policy here. And unfortunately, the policy was formulated in 1993. It's a very old document, which was not revised until now. And so I got the honor of leading that research. And we did. We talked to the different government organizations and also went down to the community and addressed – we have here what we call districts and zones – and we addressed all community members in 68 zones, in all of the zones here in in the country. Indeed, a nationwide consultation on the policy. And what we have noticed was the government, as well as other stakeholders, have ignored the impact of legal framework, a strong legal framework, to support the activities that they're doing to mainstream gender, or to bring about gender equality or to make life better for women and girls, and to avoid the migration that I was talking about earlier. And we have seen that it's also very different across the country. And so there is a need for contextualizing that different interventions or changes that we need, or we want to see, within the community, because here we are talking…when we talk about gender equality, and women and girls, we are also talking about social norms, which are deeply embedded within the community in the patriarchal structure that we have in most of parts of the country. And so we are hoping for a new or revised policy, which can take us to a new phase of transformative policy or legal framework for women and girls in the whole community, here in Ethiopia.

Jessica Williams 27:30
Amazing work that you're doing here. It really is. And I know it must be very hard work. And a lot of the research must be difficult to read and to analyze. But it sounds very, very important. And so thank you for the work that you're doing. And thank you for for joining us on the show. If people want to connect with you and learn more about your work, where can they go?

Kiya Gezahegne 27:58
Like I have mentioned earlier, most of the research that we have done is was GAGE. So we have the official websites, they can check out those organizations and research firms and they can also reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Jessica Williams 28:18
You're welcome. And we'll put those links in the show notes. And yeah, it was a pleasure and best of luck with your continued work. And I hope that the outcomes that you want start happening soon.

Kiya Gezahegne 28:30
Thank you.

Jessica Williams 28:32
Absolutely. The Days for Girls Podcast is produced by Days for Girls International. For show notes and resources mentioned in this episode, visit daysforgirls.org/podcast. If you'd like to support the work we do on the show, leave a rating or a review wherever you listen, subscribe to the show, and share our episodes on social media or with your friends. To learn more about Days for Girls and to join our global movement, please visit daysforgirls.org. Thank you for listening. See you next time.


Jessica Williams
Jessica Williams is Chief Development & Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. She is also the host of The Days for Girls Podcast. Jessica holds a Bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University in Communications and a Master’s degree in Strategic Communications from The University of Oregon. She is also an adjunct instructor for the University of Portland’s Pamplin School of Business Nonprofit MBA program.