Introducing Etenesh, and through her, Berhan Lehetsanat

By Helen Harrison

In Amharic, the Ethiopian language, Berhan means ‘child’, and Lehetsanat means ‘light’ or ‘lighten’. The focus of the organisation Berhan Lehetsanat (hereafter BL) is to bring the light of hope to disadvantaged children, and to lighten their load. Primarily this is through working with disabled children and helping them gain access to education and healthcare, but also BL works to ensure access to education for girls from poor and marginalised backgrounds.

The range of disabilities that children on the BL radar are living with is large, and includes not just the more visible disabilities, but also intellectual disabilities, hearing and visual impairments, and there is an increasing number of children diagnosed with autism that are seeking support. The facilities for supporting these children is very limited, even in Ethiopia which is a fairly forward looking country, and BL is very aware that the main way that they can reach many children is through getting suitable awareness-raising and training into the national curriculums of teachers, health care workers, and community-based service providers.

Therefore, the activities of BL include direct provision of physiotherapy, OT and orthopaedic appliances to children with disabilities; advocacy for the disabled child at all levels, from community upwards, including the dispelling of myths and stigma around disability; provision of training in schools and at teacher training institutes to increase awareness about inclusive education; and advocacy and empowerment for the girl child

As a ‘no-longer-practising’ physio who has lived with the diagnosis of epilepsy since adolescence, I have a particular affinity for the work and focus of BL, which has been a partner of CRED for about 7 years now, and I’ve had the delight of visiting the organisation a few times now, including going to some of their satellite hubs in other parts of the country.

This year has proved to be a particularly special year for BL as it celebrates its 25th anniversary, and at the centre of those celebrations is Etenesh, the wonderful lady who founded the organisation all those years back. She is such an incredible lady, and it’s my joy to share a little bit about her here.

Etenesh Beyene Wondmagegnehu is the CEO of BL and has been at its helm since the start. She has taken it from a small start up to the organization that it is now, with a staff of 60+, and that has impacted thousands of lives for the better over its years. She is a beautiful combination of a visionary who also can consider plans in more detail and has a wonderful way of enabling others to feel empowered as she includes them in the development of the organisation – she’s just a wonderful leader!

The wonderfulness of Etenesh has recently been recognised in the public domain on a few occasions, and today we had a lovely time seeing some of the photos of these recognitions, and quite how impressive they are.

There is a bank in Ethiopia that was set up about 11-12 years ago by a group of women. It is called Enat bank, which is Amharic for mother. The key focus for the bank when it was set up was to make provision to savings and financial services more accessible for women of all backgrounds, and this remains a strong ethos, despite the fact that it is now also a mainstream bank for many men. Every time Enat bank opens a new branch, it names that branch after a woman who they feel has made a significant contribution to the advancement of female empowerment in Ethiopia.

I’m sure you can guess what is coming next: yes, last month the Etenesh Wondmagegnehu branch of Enat bank was opened. What an accolade for her achievements and the work of BL in supporting girls around the country.

In addition, two significant ceremonies have been held recently to honour Etenesh and the 25th anniversary of BL, hosted by The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and by Ethiotelecom, the national telecommunication company. In Ethiopia, to have one such national institution honour an organization in this way is no small deal, to have two honours makes it very clear just how highly regarded and esteemed BL is at a national level.

The most recent accolade was for Etenesh as an individual. Each year, members of the Ethiopian Civil Society nominate individuals who they feel are worthy of recognition for outstanding achievements in the progressive development of the nation. The list started out at 4,000 people, and eventually, after a long process of scrutiny and investigation, was whittled down to 27 finalists of which Etenesh was one. At a recent celebration event, those 27 finalists were awarded with certificates, and then 3 were highlighted as being the outstanding winners. Two were men, and 1 was Etenesh. So, from the initial list of 4,000, Etenesh was chosen as the top woman from across the nation to receive the Civil Society award.

All of this demonstrates just what an inspirational lady Etenesh is and how much her achievements with BL have been recognised across the nation and society sectors. But alongside this Etenesh is a loving wife who plays an active role in her church and civil society. She has the best interests of children with disabilities at the heart of all she does, and she recognises this as her calling from God. It is such an honour to be able to sit alongside her and to call her a friend, and along with the late Dr Jember, I feel that CRED has had the privilege of serving with two of Ethiopia’s finest women in recent years.

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