Growing up in Addis Ababa, Mahlet Alemayehu always looked forward to the end of the school day, the time when she’d share her many adventures with her mother and revisit the moments big and small that shaped her day.
“She would always make time for me,” Mahlet says with a smile, recalling one of the many moments that stays with her to this day.
Mahlet, now a medical doctor and a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow, created Mandela Ethiopia Doctors with nine other Fellows looking to improve the health care system in the state.
“We serve the community by empowering health care professionals to create safe spaces for patients, using advocacy to make health care a reality for all,” Mahlet says.
The group’s latest work has included organizing pledge drives for cancer patients, distributing flyers about the risk factors associated with breast cancer, and holding the first public discussion in Addis Ababa about sexual harassment in the health sector.
Mahlet’s interest in the field stems, in part, from her early work in hospitals in the city and the great gender disparity she witnessed there.
“I began my work in the men’s ward and, when I was transferred to the women’s section, I saw that women were suffering from severe conditions, but it wasn’t the conditions themselves at issue, but the culture,” Mahlet recalls.
One conversation in particular stays with her.
“I remember meeting a woman my age who had eight miscarriages,” Mahlet says. “She was not going to survive her ninth pregnancy, and I remember her husband telling me, ‘It’s not worth helping her; she didn’t give me a child.’”
“At that moment, I made a promise to myself to work in women’s rights and have done so ever since.”
Mahlet’s advice to other young people interested in advocating for women’s health is to first identify the issues at root in their state.
“Really look at your community and where the barriers are,” Mahlet says. “I went into women’s health not because of classroom education, but because I saw the problems women were facing and knew I had to do something.”
Equally important, Mahlet stresses, is involving young leaders from the start in advocating for women’s rights, encouraging them to shape the future of the movement.
“It’s important to use social media to collect stories and to teach people about public health, but it’s important, too, to engage in one-on-one conversations,” Mahlet says.
“If we form those friendships, they are not going to break easily.”
Mahlet emphasizes that advocating for women’s health is a lifelong endeavor and one that deserves worldwide attention.
“In my view, a perfect world is one where everyone’s rights are respected,” Mahlet says. “It’s a world where young girls, instead of carrying babies, are carrying backpacks.”