The Proposal

In case you wanted more information on what I will be researching here is my research proposal I submitted to receive the Richter funding:

Despite poverty, oppression and instability, Ethiopian women have found a renewed sense of hope in the glory of the Ethiopian long-distance running legacy.  Originally a tradition among Ethiopian men, women have recently embraced and succeeded in, long distance running. The sport has provided new economic, political and social opportunities to the small number of women who have pursued it professionally.  But can this legacy provide new opportunities to those women who do not reach the professional level? Can it change the ways that Ethiopian women view themselves and their place in Ethiopian society?

In this research study I will examine if long distance running can be used as a tool to empower women in Ethiopia – a topic that has not been widely studied in the academic world.  Running barefoot across the finish line in Rome in 1960, Abebe Bikila, won Ethiopia’s first Olympic gold medal, beginning what would become one of the world’s most renowned sports legacies. Ethiopia has won thirty-one Olympic medals, all in distance running events[1]. Much of the success Ethiopians have experienced in the Olympics has been attributed to the physical and social conditions in which they live and their mental discipline as athletes. As Ethiopia’s lowland is higher than 3,800 feet above sea level and more than twenty-five percent of it is over 5,500 feet, Ethiopians develop a higher lung capacity by living at higher altitudes than most populations do throughout the world.[2] In addition, the traditional diet of the average Ethiopian, rich in complex carbohydrates and proteins, is ideal for endurance runners and athletes of all types.  The Ethiopian lifestyle is also heavily active.  Meseret Defar, Ethiopian Olympic gold medalist, discussed in an interview how from a young age she “was always running errands for [her] family,” “fetching water or going for groceries.”[3] When asked why Ethiopian runners were so dominant in long-distance track races, Meseret Defar talked about several factors including the role her close-knit family plays as the family dynamic “ensures discipline and is also a motivation to stay true to [one's] goals and dreams.”[4] Together, the elevation, diet, active lifestyle and mental discipline of Ethiopian citizens have built a nation living in conditions that are beneficial in becoming an endurance runner.

But the Ethiopian lifestyle alone does not account for the nation’s success in international running competitions. The country has also created a large network of institutions that help recruit, train, and promote runners. The Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF) receives “meager annual subsidies from the government” but has focused its attention on programs for discovering and developing youth athletic talent.[5] The Federation’s coaches attend local races and scout for athletes that show potential to be successful in their training programs and as competitive athletes. When these athletes train, the multitude of aspiring professional runners attracts a crowd that follows the athletes in an attempt to mimic the training regimen and gain recognition.[6] Several non-profit organizations have also taken to scouting athletes at local competitions and offering them training at camps through out the country. Dating back to the 1960s, the Ethiopian running legacy has over time created a network of programs and individuals working to discover Ethiopia’s next Olympic running champions. In the process, the country has fostered a culture of running among a large segment of the population, only few of whom will ever reach national or international levels of competition.

In 1992, a champion runner Derartu Tulu, introduced women into Ethiopia’s tradition of superior endurance runners and reflected the new emerging place for women in Ethiopian society. She won the gold medal in the “10,000 [meters event] at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, becoming the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal.”[7] With her victory, Tulu became a symbol of the potential of Ethiopian women to excel in long-distance running. Today, women’s involvement in the sport has grown to rival that of men’s, as “seven of the 10 top-earning athletes in Ethiopia are women.”[8]

Tulu’s victory came at the end of a period of grassroots organizing and Marxist-Leninist control from 1976-1991 in Ethiopia.  During this period, “‘women’s issues’ [became] instrumental slogans for ideologues” as the Marxist-Leninist Party set up “peasants’, youths’, workers’ and women’s’ associations” in order to raise support for the party[9]. Though the government created space for women’s affairs during this time, it “did not include women’s participation in parliaments or other legal agencies, and it allowed them no political prominence.”[10] Mengistu’s Marxist-Leninist party set up the Rural Women and Associations in the Revolutionary State (REWA) but ultimately showed very “little consciousness of gender equity.”[11] Despite the lack of political and institutional involvement of women, a new consciousness of women’s equality began to emerge during the period.  In 1992, a year after Mengistu was deposed as president, Derartu Tulu won her first gold medal in Barcelona, ushering in an era where women would find equality under the law and continue to redefine their role as Ethiopian citizens.

Since then, Ethiopian women have seen major advancements in regards to their equality under the law, but are still limited in terms of social, economic and political opportunities.  With the fall of the Marxist-Leninist Party came the introduction of a new constitution and a democratic government in 1994.  One year later the Ethiopian government amended its constitution to include the equality of women under the law.  In the new constitution, article 35 requires women “equality in all matters related to employment,” “equality in the acquisition and management of property,” guarantees “the right to plan families,” prohibits “laws or customary practices that harm women” and “permits affirmative and remedial measures to rectify the consequences of historical discrimination against Ethiopian women.”[12]

This was a huge advancement in the legal rights of women but the implementation of such laws has been challenging due to the decentralization of Ethiopia’s multiple regions.  Unfortunately for women’s rights, “customary laws, which form part of the broader regulatory framework within which women operate, vary from region to region” having a direct impact on the access women have to their legal rights.[13] Similarly, women have little protection under the law against female genital mutilation (FGM).  The Ethiopian Penal Code states that FGM “carries a punishment of imprisonment of not less than three months or a fine of not less than 300Birr [US$50],” serving as a weak deterrent against a practice heavily embedded in Ethiopian culture.[14] According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the prevalence and use of FGM on the population of Ethiopian women “dropped from 61 percent in 1997 to 46 percent in 2008 – although an estimated three out of four Ethiopian women have undergone [what is classified as] the removal of all or parts of the female genitalia for non-medical reasons.”[15] Despite legal changes, women continue to face inequality within Ethiopian society, as only 35.1% of women are literate while 50.3% of men are literate.[16] This disparity of education is apparent in the enrollment at the largest university in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa University, where only 17.2 percent of the student population is female.[17]

Due in part to the large differences in how national laws are enforced in different parts of the country, especially in rural areas, the nation’s culture has continued to be one of the major forces dictating the role of women at home, in society and in the government.  A new approach to enabling women to access their legal rights must be designed to function at the rural level where women are less likely to have the opportunity to live under the full protection of the law.

The involvement of women in the Ethiopian long distance running legacy has reflected the involvement of women in society. But sports can also be an agent for social change, as has been seen in many parts of the world, including the United States, where sports pioneers such as Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King and others symbolized and reflected movements for racial and social equality. In Ethiopia, women’s involvement in running can also be used to increase the opportunities available to the women.

Traditionally, the role and work of the Ethiopian woman is at home, where she raises children, cooks, and runs errands for the family.  By becoming involved in a running program, a woman has the opportunity to train in the capital city, Addis Ababa, where “education, health care, and employment outside the home [are] more available” in comparison to rural areas.[18] With over 85 percent of Ethiopian women living in rural areas, the opportunities associated with living in the city are especially valuable to those who are able to have access to them.[19] To those involved, running offers a network of resources like coaches, administrators, and other runners who may be able to provide jobs, domestic services and educational resources previously unavailable to those outside the running community. Though these economic and educational opportunities can improve the lives of women in Ethiopia, they in and of themselves may not be enough to empower women in way that will lead to their equality with in the Ethiopian society.

Empowerment is not simply having economic and educational opportunities available but rather the confidence, sense of self, and organization necessary to make decisions independently and consciously.  Today, women in Ethiopia face a difficult “conflict between constructing [their] own identity [and] having [their] identity defined by others.”[20] Though they are equal under the law, cultural traditions have yet to provide this equality to all Ethiopian women.  They remain under the forces of individuals beside themselves in regards to their bodies, occupations, education, and future.   Regaining control over one’s life requires an increase “in self-confidence and self-esteem, a sense of agency and of ’self’ in a wider context, and a sense of dignidad (being worthy of having a right to respect from others).”[21] This is the essence of empowerment. It does not necessarily provide economic and educational opportunities but rather the means by which to acquire and utilize these opportunities.  The availability of resources is useless to an individual if they do not “perceive themselves as able and entitled to make decisions” regarding those resources.[22] Empowerment of the individual is the first step towards the organized social mobilization that is necessary to create change in any culture or society.  In other words, greater empowerment and equality is the result of both changes in culture and changes in institutions.

While working to attain the economic benefits of professional long distance running, women place themselves in a situation where they are able to gain an increased sense of self-confidence and have access to a large network of women engaging in the same activity. Even though “most human action is purposeful and strategic, it will always have unintended consequences that were not part of the original strategy. And in some cases the unintended consequences may turn out to be more important and long lasting than the intended ones.”[23] By engaging in the sport of endurance running, women can gain confidence through their success in an activity that is not only outside their traditional role at home but is also a part of a national legacy that includes both men and women at the highest levels of success.  Though not the intended goal, this enhanced sense of self will continue to impact the lives of women athletes, regardless if they attain financial success from their athletic achievements. As visible by the various opportunities presented to women by long distance running, “it would be wrong to underestimate the positive benefits that sport has brought to the lives of increasing numbers of women from developing countries.”[24]

These women are not only building self confidence but also are gathering and running with other women who are becoming more aware of their place in society, a prime environment for change on a local level to manifest itself.  Long distance running has the potential to facilitate conversations between women that normally wouldn’t occur in a context that is seemingly less threatening to men, since female running has become a culturally acceptable activity.  These conversations are incredibly important as “women find confidence and courage in their relations with other women and through the work of organizations and movements can more easily give voice to what they want.”[25] As regional fragmentation has made it nearly impossible to fully implement the changes made to the constitution, change must come from the individual communities and the women with in them.

Research Question:

In Ethiopia, I hope to research the potential that running has to empower women at a local and community level as well as provide economic and educational opportunities that were previously unavailable.  Though it is clear that professional running provides access to monetary compensation and new job and educational opportunities, it is less clear how running benefits those that do not reach the competitive professional level.  In this study I will be researching if involvement in the culture of running is enough to enhance the self-esteem and impact the perspective of women participating in the sport.  I will also be looking at whether or not these women develop a new sense of community while training at a non-professional level.  Finally I will look at how available and accessible the opportunities associated with running are to women in Ethiopia and whether or not this is a viable alternative for women.  These questions will help me to determine if long distance running truly can be used as a tool to empower women and mobilize them in a way that benefits their economic, social and political status.


My research will be divided into three main parts: 1) interviewing women currently running as part of various non-profit organizations, 2) interviewing scholars, academics, journalists and university students on the current status of women’s equality in Ethiopia and 3) studying the behavior and interactions of women running within and outside of organizations as well as the developed institution of competitive long distance running in Ethiopia.

The purpose of interviewing the female runners is to gain an authentic understanding of their experiences with running and being a woman in Ethiopia as well as their needs and aspirations.  Jennifer Hargreaves, author of Heroines of Sport. The Politics of Difference, describes how:

“The use of biography or life history as a methodological approach can provide unique insights into the meanings that sport has in the lives of women.  It is possible to build the analysis around the experiences of women themselves and hence understand better the ways in which they construct personal identities and imagines collective identities.”[26]

In order to gain the best understanding of the lives of the eighteen women I will be interviewing, they must feel comfortable enough to speak openly about their lives as runners and individuals.  This is why I will be speaking to the women through contacts at each organization that work closely with the girls on a day to day basis.  In this way, I will not only be able to interpret my questions clearly to the women but the questions will be asked by someone whom they know and trust.  I will also be spending time at each of the three camps before I begin interviewing so that the girls can become familiar with me.  As a young Caucasian female researcher in Ethiopia I will be facing skepticism at all levels of my interaction with individuals from the female runners to the coaches and administrators to academics and students.  Anticipating this barrier, Mr. Garret Ash of Running Across Borders will be discussing my research with Coach Tizazu Wubeshet and the administrators at Arsi Zone Youth and Sport Office in Asella while visiting Ethiopia in March 2009 so that they may become more familiar with my project and involvement with the organization. Collaborating with non profit organizations working to support Ethiopian women runners like Girls Gotta Run, Running Across Borders, the Tesfa Foundation and A Running Start have been essential to my research as they have helped me to connect with the female athletes and better understand the institutions behind the Ethiopian running circuit.  Recognizing the sensitivity of both women’s rights and a national legacy, it is important that the people I am working with feel comfortable with me so that I may observe their activities and interactions with out being intrusive or offensive.

As the topic of women and sports in developing countries has been little explored in the academic world, this project would allow me to conduct unique and original research on a topic that relates personally to my interests and would contribute to the growing field of work on the subject. According to R. Chappell, “‘little research has so far been carried out on sport in developing world countries.’ Far less research has been carried out in relation to opportunities for girls and women in developing countries.”[27] Combining the growing involvement of women in Ethiopian long distance running and the increasing awareness of women’s rights in Ethiopia now is the perfect time to contribute to a growing field of work by examining this unique relationship.

I have run cross-country and track for more than seven years and have been involved in fundraising for organizations involved in East African politics and women’s rights.  Due to my background, I will be able to understand the trials of the female athletes I interact with better than someone who doesn’t have experience running.  Integrating my academic and personal interests, this research project will not only further my own growth as a student and individual but will expand the foundation of research on women and sports in developing nations.

[1] Profile of Team Ethiopia and Olympic History. Aug 11,2008

[2] Meseret Defar: “In Ethiopia we learn how to overcome”. Take the Magic Step. June 23


[3] Meseret Defar: “In Ethiopia we learn how to overcome”. Take the Magic Step. June 23


[4] Meseret Defar: “In Ethiopia we learn how to overcome”. Take the Magic Step. June 23


[5] Gebrehiwot, Mamo, About Ethiopian Athletics, EthioSports,

[6] Phone conversation with Pat Ortman of Girls Gotta Run Foundation Inc. November 12th 2008

[7] Longman, Jere. “Athletics: Ethiopia may be poor, but it’s rich in distance runners”.  International Herald Tribune. Feb 1 2007 p1

[8] Wax, Emily, Facing Servitude, Ethiopian Girls Run for a Better Life, Washington Post, Dec 29, 2005

[9] Mikell, Gwendolyn, African Feminism: The Politics of Survival in Sub-Saharan Africa, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, c1997 p187

[10] Mikell, Gwendolyn, African Feminism: The Politics of Survival in Sub-Saharan Africa, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, c1997 p186

[11] Mikell, Gwendolyn, African Feminism: The Politics of Survival in Sub-Saharan Africa, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, c1997 p187

[12] World Bank, Implementing the Ethiopian National Policy for Women, Ethiopia Women’s Affairs Office, World Bank Publications, Washington D.C. c1998. p10

[13] World Bank, Implementing the Ethiopian National Policy for Women, Ethiopia Women’s Affairs Office, World Bank Publications, Washington D.C. c1998. p1

[14] Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). “Female Circumcision declines in Ethiopia’s southern region”, July 31 2007

[15] “Ethiopia: New Initiative Against FGM/C”, UNHCR. Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). Dec 1 2008.

[16] “Ethiopia People 2008″, 2008 CIA  World Factbook. Feb 12 2008

[17] “Background”, Addis Ababa University. c2000-2001

[18] “Ethiopia: The Role of Women”. Library of Congress Country Studies. 1991

[19] “Ethiopia: The Role of Women”. Library of Congress Country Studies. 1991

[20] Hargreaves, Jennifer.The ‘Women’s International Sports Movement’ Local-Global   Strategies and Empowerment. Women’s Studies International Forum. Elsevier Science Ltd. USA. Vol. 22, No. 5. pp 461-471 c1999 p470

[21] Parpit, Jane L., Rai, Shirin M., Staudt, Kathleen. Rethinking Empowerment: Gender and development in a global/local world. Routledge. New York, NY. c2002 p11

[22] Parpit, Jane L., Rai, Shirin M., Staudt, Kathleen. Rethinking Empowerment: Gender and development in a global/local world. Routledge. New York, NY. c2002 p11

[23] Mikell, Gwendolyn, African Feminism: The Politics of Survival in Sub-Saharan Africa,University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, c1997, p14

[24] Hargreaves, Jennifer. Sporting Females- critical issues in the history and sociology of women’s sports.  Routledge. London and New York. C1997 p6

[25] Hargreaves, Jennifer. Heroines of Sport. The Politics of Difference and Identity. Routledge. London and New York. c2000 p13

[26]Hargreaves, Jennifer. Heroines of Sport. The Politics of Difference and Identity. Routledge. London and New York. c2000. p9

[27] Chappell, R. “Sport in Developing Countries – Opportunities for Girls and Women”. Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal. Las Vegas: Sep 30, 1999. vol. 8, Iss. 2. p1

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Fisher June 1, 2009 at 11:23 am

Woooo! Research proposal!

Lucy June 2, 2009 at 10:49 pm

gurl you so intelligent and fyyyyne.

you should be in africa. i almost bought a ticket that went through ethiopia and almost peed my pants with excitement. ok not really, but i was excited. anyways, i just wanted you to check this thing and be able to read my thoughts. i lurve you, keep in touch.

ps i just bought some liquid that is 98.7% deet, so if the mosquitoes are bothering you hollatcha girl and i’ll send some over to you.

endeshaw March 22, 2012 at 11:46 am

hi,please send some books related with women’s political participation in Ethiopia since 1991.

endeshaw March 22, 2012 at 11:51 am

Hi, it is good information that you white previous, please continue.

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