Maria was born in Merkato in Addis Ababa to a large family of 13 girls and 4 boys. Her primary education was at the Cathedral School. She shares how people in her community used to wonder why a Muslim girl would go to a Catholic school but her father, a devoted man, believed in good education for his daughters and insisted on the school. Maria completed her secondary education at the Empress Menen School for Girls. Soon after completing her secondary education, Maria fell in love with a man, of a different ethnic background and religion (but converted to Islam) to hers. She married him despite objections of her family. The couple moved to Asmara, then still a part of Ethiopia, as Maria’s husband was a member of the Navy. Maria tried to attend Asmara University but found the schedule difficult with a young baby. The young couple moved back to Addis Ababa and while she was pregnant with her second son, her husband was arrested and later killed by the military regime – she never received official notification of his death. At the time Maria had been working for the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in Addis as a Judge and decided to go back to school for a Diploma in Law at AAU while raising her two children alone. The Ministry considered her the wife of an anti-revolutionary and would not give her a raise.
With the change in government in 1991, Maria was selected to join the Federal High Court and became a judge and served in civil and criminal bench. While she was a judge she and other women lawyers brought the idea of forming the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) paving the way for its formation where she served as a board member. After she left her role as a Judge, she became an independent Lawyer and participated in forming the EWLA office and committees in all the regions. Maria was also one of the free legal aid providers in EWLA in which she was awarded by APAP for giving free legal Aid for more than 8000 women. She was then engaged in travelling all over the country to create awareness on women rights; was one of the team members who provided paralegal training; encouraged participation of women in election in all the regions; advocated for the revision of the family and penal code and pension regulation; was a team leader of the group organized by the Network of Ethiopian Women’s Association (NEWA) that provided training in many of the regions for women candidates and also sharing her experience as being one of the independent political candidates.
In 2000, Maria led campaigns within EWLA and with other women’s rights activists including the late Dr. Konjit and the late Dr. Adanech culminating in a huge demonstration on the issue of women’s rights. Maria and the group wanted to do something more concrete after the end of the campaign period and created what was then the Tsotawi Tikat Tekelakai Mahber (TTTM) which was formally registered in 2003 but which started work in 2005 and opened the first safe house for abused women girls and children providing holistic services. When all NGOs were asked to re-register after the new Charities and Societies Organization (CSO) legislation passed in 2009, TTTM became the Association for Women’s Sanctuary and Development (AWSAD).
To date, TTTM / AWSAD have served 2676 women and 1134 children. The NGO runs two Safe Houses in Addis with over 120 women and children living there currently, and there are two more Safe Houses in Adama. The women and children are referred by the police, EWLA, women’s affairs offices as well as the child-friendly courts one stop center Gandi Hospital, schools and other NGOs. All the women and many of the children are survivors of physical and/or sexual violence and they come from all Ethiopian regions and in a few cases, as far away as from South Sudan. Although TTTM started small, the fact that others are replicating it now is to her credit. TTTM/AWSAD has shown that the Safe House services are possible and necessary.
In addition to providing shelter and safety from perpetrators (in some cases, the men who have committed violence against the women and children have not been arrested or their cases are pending in court), AWSAD provides medical services and a linkage to hospitals for further treatment and psycho-social support for the survivors. The NGO also offers different types of skills transfer like leather and bamboo works, baby sitting, embroidery trainings etc and also provides start up and living cost for survivors when they leave the safe house.
“Leka Sew Yayal ”
It also gives skills training for women and girls in the community who cannot afford to pay for training costs. AWSAD also offers school-based trainings on Gender reproductive health in six elementary schools in Addis Ababa. Lastly, AWSAD offers self-defense trainings for girls in school and at the Safe House. Maria and her staff members were one of the first trainees with survivors in the safe house. AWSAD through Maria’s leadership also provided psycho-social support and shelter to Ethiopian migrants that repatriated from the Arab countries in 2013. They also provided skills training for those returnees who moved to Adama and now these returnees with the support of AWSAD have opened a restaurant as an income generating activity.
When asked what her proudest achievement to date is, Maria recalls that as a child, she used to teach older women who didn’t have a chance to go to school. As a young woman, she joined YWCA and as a leader of a club within it, she raised funds for drought relief and took it to Bati (Wello) where she and her friends slept in containers and helped in resettlement efforts. More recently, she feels proud of the existence of the Safe House where many young women who had been raped and often pregnant were told ‘ayzosh’ and delivered safely. To also see abused girls continue their education, learn skills and be self-sufficient and raise their kids has given her much satisfaction. Coincidentally, one of her staff members who was interviewed was a beneficiary of the Safe House who went on to finish college in IT and came back to work for AWSAD.
AWSAD supports young professional women by creating opportunities for volunteering and internships after which they often become staff members. Currently 9 staff members started as volunteers and two of her mentees have gone on to do well in international organizations. Family members and colleagues call her ‘a friend of the young’.
Although Maria has long recognized the importance of having a succession plan and has mentored several young women whom she had hoped would take over her position once she retires, she was disappointed when these women left AWSAD for higher paying jobs with International NGOs or other agencies. She hopes to find a good replacement for her position and to leave once the Safe House has a permanent building. Her dream is for the Safe House to incorporate day cares (as has been started in Adama) to benefit other poor women, to open a training center in the safe house and upgrade the clinic instead of referring the women to hospitals. AWSAD also aims to open a third Safe House in Dessie.
Beyond her work at AWSAD that keeps her busy even on weekends and over holidays (she often celebrates holidays with the AWSAD clients in the Safe House), Maria serves as a member of the Alem Mediation and Peace Initiative, and has also served as the Chair. Maria has also served as board chair of NEWA and as a founding member of the Union of Ethiopian Women’s Charitable Associations and also helped to facilitate its creation. Maria is also one of the founders of YWCA; is one of the founder and member of the GBV campaign group chaired by NEWA; supported Megegego in Benishangul and Bega in Hawassa to open a safe house and also served as a leader of women’s edir (burial society) in her community