Girls Gotta Run

Late last year, I learned of an organisation called Girls Gotta Run Foundation who are doing some incredible work empowering girls in Ethiopia through running. Lifting young women up through getting them active? Obviously, this is something I can most definitely get behind. The more I read about what they’re doing, the more appreciation I have for it. I caught up with Kayla Nolan, the executive director of the foundation for the low down on how it started, the work they’re doing now and where she sees it going in the future.

What is Girls Gotta Run? 

The Girls Gotta Run Foundation provides support for impoverished Ethiopian girls who are training to be professional runners. While most do not become professional athletes, some do; and training allows them all to stay in school, avoid early marriage, and enhance their personal economic opportunities. It also develops their sense of well-being and personal power.

What are some of the issues Ethiopian girls face that you hope running can help them overcome? 

Girls in Ethiopia live lives that are often dictated by others.  When a girl reaches her early teen years, she will most likely be taken out of school to be married, work at the family business or help with household duties. This isolates girls at a young age and they are unable to make friends, learn about opportunities to build a new future for themselves or talk about health and safety issues they may be experiencing.  This is especially dangerous considering that girls in Ethiopia experience high rates of HIV/AIDS, domestic abuse, harmful cultural practices and rape.

Running is one of the few ways in which women may come together to invest time in themselves, their own personal goals and their relations with other women.  When girls participate in running teams, they have access to a safe space in which they can discuss issues they are facing at home and in school.  Through running, girls can exercise their physical power, focus on personal goals and, find confidence and self worth.

What changes has the foundation been able to make so far? 

Since the organization was founded in 2006, Girls Gotta Run Foundation has provided tools and resources for almost 50 female athletes, funded the establishment of four running teams and developed a community of partners working to support female runners in Ethiopia.

A good example of the type of individual and community level changes that the Girls Gotta Run Foundation has been able to support is the Simien Girls Running Team.  In 2007, GGRF began sponsoring a team of ten girl runners in the small town of Debark in the Simien Mountains.  Of the original ten girls that were part of the GGRF Simien Girl Runners team, all completed secondary school, three completed college and all are currently employed.

Partly as a result of the success of the Simien Girl Runners team, an Ethiopian businessman came forward in the winter of 2011 to invest in the creation of a co-ed running club/team in Debark. With the support of the Ethiopian Youth and Sports Office in Debark, the Atlimate Athletics Club was created and now supports 60 athletes in Debark. The running program in Debark is now completely locally funded and continues to grow and support an equal number of girls and boys in athletics.

When I was in Ethiopia this spring, I spoke with the Assistant Officer of the Debark Youth and Sports Office, Sitotaw Tagebe. He explained to me;

“About ten years ago, cultural and religious views limited girls from running. They were discriminated against because they ran. Normally, girls would stay at home, do housework and not go to school. Then girl runners began to make an income from running, find good health, stay in school and help their families. When girls ran, they became part of a team and learned about the opportunities available outside of housework. Today, runners have become a positive example for girls and girls are encouraged to run for health and to uplift themselves.”

Debark is a prime example of the communal transformation that can occur when girls are provided a chance to work together to achieve their goals in athletics and life. GGRF is proud to have played an integral role as a catalyst for the expansion of athletic and personal opportunities for girls in Debark.

You recently visited a team of girls the foundation supported out in Ethiopia. Tell me a little about this trip and what you learned while there.

Earlier this year I spent two months in Ethiopia evaluating our programs and talking with the girls we serve about the types of challenges and successes they have experienced while running in Ethiopia. This was my second time to Ethiopia. The first time was in 2009 where I was conducting research on the empowerment of girls through running. Over the summer of 2009 was when I first met the girls of Girls Gotta Run Foundation.

It was great to be able to go back to Ethiopia and develop programs that addressed the challenges girl runners are facing. Many girls are unable to afford the shoes, running clothes and food needed to run. Other girls can’t afford transportation to running practice in the city or find it difficult to balance running, education, work and family responsibilities. GGRF has been working to address these needs since 2006 and is continuously looking to be more effective, efficient and responsive.  I look forward to integrating the recommendations of the girl runners I spoke with in Ethiopia into our future programming.

How are the girls in Ethiopia responding to the program? 

In Ethiopia, running has provided the unique opportunity for women to become international leaders, role models and competitors through the power of sport. Many of the girls we work with look up to Ethiopian women runners like Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar for their accomplishes both on and off the track. The girls we support enjoy having the opportunity follow in the footsteps of their role models by pursuing running both recreationally and professionally. With the support of GGRF, they are able to make a better life for themselves and have access to greater athletic and educational opportunities.

What are the plans for the future of Girls Gotta Run? Do you think the program could work in other countries? 

Currently, Girls Gotta Run is working to raise the necessary funds to increase our impact in Ethiopia and provide greater opportunities for girls to achieve their goals in athletics and education. We hope to support the creation of future Ethiopian girl leaders and role models that have used running and education to build self sufficient, healthy lives.

Running has proven to be a low cost, high impact kind of sport that has great potential as a method of empowerment for girls internationally.  Girls Gotta Run Foundation is currently working to achieve our greatest impact in Ethiopia before considering moving into other countries.

However, we believe strongly that running has the power to transform the way girls are viewed and view themselves, provide safe environments for girls to discuss difficult life issues and support girls through the time in their life that they are often taken away from education and sport for marriage and work. It would be an honor to work with girls outside of Ethiopia in the future to explore ways that running could benefit their communities.

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