In the grounds of a school in Bahir Dar, a city in north-west Ethiopia, thousands of young fans have gathered to catch a glimpse of the country’s hottest girl band.
Behind billowing white sheets in a makeshift green room, the four women collectively known as Yegna prepare to take the stage. As the harsh lunchtime sunshine beats down, curious schoolchildren press up against the material to get a glimpse of their idols, who have been dubbed Ethiopia’s Spice Girls by the British press.
More than just a band, Yegna, which means “ours” in Amharic, use music and drama to raise awareness of child marriage, sexual harassment, violence and the importance of education. And it’s making a difference. An estimated 8.5 million people have heard the band’s messages.
Bilen, 14, is at the concert with her sister. “Yegna taught us the motto ‘Yes we can,’” she says. “As we grow up, I think people think less of girls, and that’s what we used to think too. But our perspective has been changed by Yegna.”
But last year, Yegna’s work came under threat when the UK’s Department for International Development, which helped create the band in 2012, abruptly announced it was cutting funding following media criticism. DfID said it took the decision to end its partnership with Girl Effect, which oversees Yegna, after a review of the programme.
A spokesperson said: “There are more effective ways to invest UK aid and to deliver even better results for the world’s poorest and value for taxpayers’ money.”
Girl Effect had received an initial DfID grant of £4m for Yegna, covering the period from 2011 to 2015. They were later given a further £5.2m for 2015-18, although the premature conclusion to the partnership meant not all these funds were drawn down.
The Daily Mail hailed DfID’s decision, but the announcement drew criticism from women’s rights campaigners.
Ripples from the decision ran from Ethiopia to the UK. Yegna drew support from Lemn Sissay, the British poet and broadcaster of Ethiopian heritage, who has performed with the band and chose one of their tracks, Taitu, when he appeared on Desert Island Discs.
“It was a total misrepresentation of what was happening here,” says Gayathri Butler, Girl Effect Ethiopia’s country director. “And also a reduction of what we actually do. The representation of the Spice Girls, it was just taking what they had seen as a reduction of the brand, because that was what’s facing the international audience. We’re a brand created by Ethiopians and for Ethiopians.”
Butler also confirms that payments to the band reported in the Daily Mail were wildly inaccurate, and that Yegna band members are paid the market rate for performers in Ethiopia.
But Girl Effect were not to be beaten. They replaced the DfiD money with funding from several philanthropic foundations, who choose to remain anonymous. The change forced the organisation to accelerate plans to ensure its sustainability, and Girl Effect are now exploring brand sponsorships, advertising revenue during radio shows, and music sales.
“We’re a youth brand trying to break [down] barriers for girls in a very inclusive way. That includes boys, includes adults in the conversation. It’s obvious [girls] are being left behind and we should do something about it,” says brand director Bemnet Yemesgen.
Yegna consists of five “archetypal” young female characters (one is currently on maternity leave) who use storylines and song lyrics to explore social mores and controversial issues. The platforms come together to tackle one issue at a time, with the radio show theme reflected in the lyrics of the latest song.
“The music calls in the heritage of Ethiopia. The lyrics are well thought through but also we have gender teams who look at it to make sure they are meaningful without being preachy,” says Butler.
Boys also feature in the stories, to show the young fanbase that men and women can be friends as well as partners.
“We have created music that people want to buy, so we’re considering commercialising some of the products we own,” explains Yemesgen.
Butler says the audience remained blissfully unaware of the behind-the-scenes funding drama. But the decision to cease funding, she says, was short-sighted: “What we’re trying to do requires a sustained effort for change in the long term. We’re in it for the long term. We’re already seeing impact, we want to see it at scale over time and that requires commitment. It’s never been more important.”
Ethiopia is considered one of the fastest growing regions in eastern Africa. Over the past decade, Ethiopia’s economy has experienced strong growth. But with 70% of the population aged under 30, big challenges face girls growing up there.
Nearly one in five girls marries before the age of 15. The Amhara region, where the Yegna project operates, has the highest rate of child marriage, with nearly 45% of girls tying the knot before the age of 18. Social isolation, particularly in rural areas, is also a problem, with 20% of girls saying they have no friends.
Girl Effect says Yegna reach 8.5 million people, or 50% of the population in Addis Ababa and the Amhara region.
Despite the funding setback, Girl Effect are expanding the operation, which they hope to take nationwide.
Yegna members Lemlem Hailemichael, Teref Kassahun, Eyerusalem Kelemework, Zebiba Girma and Rahel Getusee see themselves as teachers – and the voice of the children of Ethiopia – rather than singers. Their enthusiasm is clear. Describing a tour of the Amhara region, Girma says: “There were over 10,000 spectators, it was amazing. Some women, who looked like us, came to the back of the stage and told us their life stories.”
When asked about the project in January 2018, Penny Mordant, who succeeded Priti Patel as development secretary, said the “Spice Girls” are still in Ethiopia doing great things without UK money.
Girl Effect are proud of the project’s resilience. Butler tells of how she was approached at a Yenga concert by a woman who married young: “She’d never really reflected on whether it had created complications in her life. It made her think about her situation and how difficult it had been. She had four daughters at home and this was the first time she realised she had to go home and have an open conversation with them.”
Back in Bahir Dar, the children, polite and restrained during the performance, cheer and clap wildly as the concert draws to a close. At the end of the gig, there’s a stage invasion. Unfazed, the band simply carry on singing with the children.
Habtamu, 19, is full of praise for the project. “It helps girls be confident,” he says. “Teaching a young girl is changing a whole community.”
A decade from now, Yemesgen’s ideal vision is a “euphoric state” where Girl Effect does not exist, because the project has succeeded and given all girls in Ethiopia a voice and agency. But he is realistic. “We know there is a lot of work to be done to get to that stage. In 10 years, I want to look back and see there has been a change.”
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