Professor Emerita Rita Levi-Montalcini has always worked hard to educate and advance the lives of women. Standing, she works with students in her lab at the University in the 1950s.

Nobel Laureate Comes to Aid of Women in Ethiopia

By Brett Brune

At long last, Rita Levi-Montalcini is living her childhood dream.

The 95-year-old Nobel laureate—who held court in the biology department at Washington University for three decades before returning to her native Italy and becoming a senator for life—is working to revolutionize the lives of more than 200 women in Africa: In 2001, she declared that her namesake foundation, started with her life savings, would focus on educating them.

“As a very young person, I became enthusiastic about Albert Schweitzer, and I wanted to go to Africa to care for people,” she said in a recent interview at her office in Rome. “I would be very happy to die knowing that these women have a future. Their situation is terrible.”

In Ethiopia, where the Fondazione Levi-Montalcini began its African philanthropy, about $285,000 has been committed to educate 60 women, nine of whom graduated this summer, said Manilo Dell’Ariccia, the country director for Ethiopia at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He has partnered with Levi-Montalcini to implement her work in Ethiopia.

Though the recent graduates studied nursing, those still in school at Unity University College in Addis Ababa are studying a variety of subjects, including management and law. The remaining scholarship students will study for five years. Because most are from “very primitive society” in Ethiopia’s countryside, it takes a year to simply adjust to “big-city life” in Addis Ababa, Dell’Ariccia said.

The positive effect Levi-Montalcini will have on the students’ lives is almost immeasurable, Dell’Ariccia suggested: “In a country like Ethiopia, the possibility of female students coming from rural areas to study at the university level is almost zero.”

On top of this, he said, Levi-Montalcini’s initial focus on Ethiopia inspired another Italian foundation to give scholarships to Ethiopians: In late 2002, the Fondazione Bruno Zevi was established to “honor the memory of Bruno Zevi, a forceful supporter of the possibility of combining democratic values with the vision of architecture,” according to its Web site.

The Zevi foundation has committed about $90,000 to educate more than a dozen students—female and male—at Unity University. The five-year project, which began in September 2003, is also being coordinated and supervised by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a 90-year-old philanthropy that is known for sponsoring “programs of relief, rescue and renewal” for Jews around the world. (Like the Levi-Montalcini project, the Zevi project is nonsectarian, Dell’Ariccia said.)

And with the help of other Italian donors, Levi-Montalcini said, her foundation has expanded to about 10 countries its effort to educate “intelligent, creative, efficient and enthusiastic” women in Africa.

By giving these women opportunities to lead, Levi-Montalcini, who has never stopped working as a neuroscientist, hopes to improve the desperate situation so many people of both sexes face in Africa—and to help prevent mass migration from the continent.

Levi-Montalcini’s desire to help people in Africa took on a new urgency after she read The Geo History of Africa, by Manlio Dinucci, about four years ago.

Dinucci said Levi-Montalcini had called him while reading his book. “She discovered this link” between how she, as a Jew in Italy, was discriminated against during World War II and how girls and women in Ethiopia are discriminated against today, he said.

“She really has the youthful enthusiasm of a young girl,” Dinucci said. “So, immediately, she decided to do something.”

Ethiopia, the cradle of mankind and now home to about 70 million people, is one of the least developed countries in the world. Ethiopia’s gross national income per capita is about $100, compared with about $20,000 in Italy and about $35,000 in the United States.

And, Dinucci said, only 30 percent of female Ethiopians older than 15 are literate, compared with 47 percent of male Ethiopians older than 15. “This means discrimination against women begins in childhood” when many girls are married—sometimes at the age of 7 or 8—to much older men, he said.

“The early marriage has harmful consequences, including health problems and spousal abuse,” Dinucci said. “But the main abuse (against women in Ethiopia) is the denial of education: Only a tiny minority has the possibility to attend the university grade.”

Askale Sisay Ayele, a Fondazione Levi-Montalcini scholar in her early 20s, said she is sure she would be a “housewife” in her hometown of Gondar were it not for Levi-Montalcini. Now, despite the fact that both of her parents died when she was a child, Ayele is about one year away from earning a degree in marketing management.

“Women’s education is especially important” for the future of Ethiopia, she wrote in an e-mail exchange from Addis Ababa, “because if one woman is educated, her whole family is educated, indirectly.” Ayele has six siblings.

Dell’Ariccia said the Levi-Montalcini and Zevi foundations are, indeed, setting the stage for a revolution.

“When we speak about a developing country like Ethiopia, education is one of the main steps to bringing concrete change,” he said. “In particular, it’s very meaningful in the role the women can have in this situation.”

“In a country like Ethiopia, the possibility of female students coming from rural areas to study at the university level is almost zero.”

Years from now, Levi-Montalcini will be remembered for “her personal humanity and deep involvement in improving living conditions of the poorest,” Dell’Ariccia said.

Today, with her shared Nobel Prize for discovering what makes nerve and skin cells develop and survive and with many other scientific and political achievements to her name, Levi-Montalcini remains a study in selflessness.

“I never cared about myself,” Levi-Montalcini said. “I have a career I didn’t expect. I have become a public person. I had never expected to become anything but a mild person.” (She said she succeeded in life largely because of a “habit of underestimating obstacles” and her “very intuitive mind.”)

She said she hopes the scholarships and grants will give African women “the possibility to work, not only to look.” And, she hopes, the opportunity to be active in politics, “not only to be slaves of the time.

“A drop of water in the desert can bring flourishing plants,” Levi-Montalcini said. “This is what I want, for this work to become exponential.”

Dinucci said Levi-Montalcini’s concentrated effort could easily serve as “an example of what could be done if there were a real political will of solving the problems of poor people.

“I am confident, and Rita Levi-Montalcini is confident, that every problem can be solved,” he said. “Africa is not lost.”

(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, © 2004.)

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