Etalem is a single mother fighting the odds to raise her two sons, Aaron*,7, and Amadi*, 5, in the Autobestera slum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Their father left when Etalem was pregnant with Amadi.
Etalem grew up without parental care. She has no family to support her in providing for her children or to watch them when she is at work.
She is trying her best to be a good mother to her sons, while struggling to provide for their basic needs and keep them off the streets.
“They do not have a father who supports us,” says Etalem, 35, fighting hard to hold back her tears. “It is very difficult for me".
“I faced a lot of challenges growing up without a family. Now, I am worrying about being able to raise my two boys,” she says.
Etalem, Aaron and Amadi live in a two-roomed shack built with iron-sheets, which they share with another family. Theirs is a tiny space that only has room for a baby mattress. It is a tight squeeze for this family of three, yet the rent is exorbitantly high at 2500 Ethiopian birr (around 50 USD) a month. The only source of light comes from a single bulb hanging from the wall.
The family uses the alleyways to cook and shower in full view of all their neighbours.
“The most difficult thing for me is the rent,” says Etalem. “In the morning, I sell candles and afterwards I work in people’s homes doing whatever I get. There is always a shortage of money. I do not choose what my sons eat. It is whatever I can afford. They have never had a balanced diet and sometimes they crave something when they see the neighbours eating, but there is nothing I can do.”
Dangerous living conditions in Addis Ababa’s slums
Etalem and her two sons are among the 80% of Addis Ababa’s population of more than five million living in the city’s slums. The informal settlements are characterized by bad infrastructure, no tenure rights, no sewage system and no electricity.
Autobestera slum is located near a national bus station known for its high number of street children. They come to Ethiopia’s capital in search of jobs and a better life.
Etalem knows this is a dangerous environment for her sons to grow up, and to leave them locked up without adult supervision when she goes to work.
“It is not a good neighbourhood. I am afraid of thieves entering the house and frightening my boys when I am gone,” says Etalem. There are also loose electric wires in the house. I worry that they will touch the floor and hurt my sons or cause a fire.
“The children that I know, who live in this area, and who have both parents, are being looked after by their mothers while the fathers work,” she adds. “There is a single-mother living over there,” – pointing to one of the houses. "Her child spends the day on the streets.”
While the phenomenon is not new to Ethiopia, the country has been experiencing an increasingly high number of children being forced to the streets as a result of poverty, loss of parental care, conflicts and climate change induced droughts and famines.
It is estimated that there are over 150,000 street children in Ethiopia, with the vast majority living in the capital city. The numbers might be significantly higher, and likely to increase due to ongoing civil unrests and droughts across the country.
Street children are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, harassment, human trafficking and preventable health issues.
They are socially rejected, looked down upon by society and deprived of basic needs.
As a consequence, most of them use alcohol and other psychoactive substances to cope with the harsh realities and discriminations they face on a daily basis.
Strengthening families keeps children from the streets
As a response to the increasing number of street children, SOS Children’s Villages in Ethiopia has implemented street-children projects in three major cities in Ethiopia, one of them being Addis Ababa.
These initiatives consist of different activities, ranging from outreach services to children and young people on the street or those at risk of being forced to the street, tracing their families, reintegrating them with their families if in their best interest, developing employability and parenting skills as well as creating community based solutions targeting systems, structures, and policies.
Marsewal Biresaw, a social worker at one of the street-children rehabilitation centres in Addis Ababa, underlines the importance of finding sustainable community based solutions and integrated approaches that include not only children and young people, but also their families.
“In this area, there are a lot of similar cases like Etalems. The financial needs of families are huge, and more and more children and young people come to Addis due to poverty. If we want to help these children and keep them off the streets, we should also think of the parents and include them in these initiatives.”
In 2022, Etalem and her two sons received support through the programmes in Addis Ababa. During the school holidays, Aaron and Amadi went to the day care center, to play, learn and get involved in different recreational activities.
“They got food, clothes, shoes and the fact that they could spend their time there is a very huge thing for me,” says Etalem, “because I worked happily without having to worry about who hit them or whether they were out on the streets.”
Etalem says she can see a positive change in her sons’ attitudes after attending the day center.
“It is important for their psychology. I can see that they are more relaxed. The insults that are directed at them and the questions they are asked about not having a father, had affected them psychologically. But, when they are in the day center they play and learn.”
To support Etalem, she received financial and psychological support as well as employability and parenting training. With this knowledge, she will sustain herself in the future and provide her sons with the bonds they need to become their strongest selves.
Even when her two sons are back in school, Etalem still regularly comes to the day center to talk to the social workers and receive counselling.
“This project has helped me in many ways,” she says. “It has made me think in a broader way. The training we took has strengthened my ability to care for my children. They have become happier and learned a lot of things. It has made me strong to raise my children with hope. It has given me hope.”
*Names changed to protect the children’s privacy.
*Text by Christine Stolz
*Photos by Petterik Wiggers