ETHIOPIA: Living in fear of a misguided prejudice

Saturday, February 1, 2014
The Reporter
Eastern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security

Longstanding cultural norms make life hard for many women in Addis Ababa, including deep-seated chauvinism that is apparent in many street corners.

Yet the authorities make little allowance for verbal intimidation, and it often pays to maintain a dignified silence rather than tackle the perpetrators. Tibebeselassie Tigabu and Mihret Aschalew investigate this depressingly familiar problem.

Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary leader who led Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987, once said: “We do not talk on women's emancipation as an act of charity or as a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.” Do Ethiopian women hold up the other half of the sky? Not according to the streets of Addis. The teenage girl walking in the Giorgis area who was verbally abused by a group of men did not feel like she was holding up the other half of the sky. The harrowing incident happened a couple of months ago, with the men calling her degrading names, bullying her, telling her how she was inappropriately dressed and describing the immoral things they wanted to do to her.

Forgetting that a woman is a person worthy of respect and who has the right to control her body, they lectured and tried to regulate the way she dressed. They looked at her as mere entertainment, yet throughout the insults she remained calm and composed before it was over.

This is not a unique story, rather it is the day-to-day reality for many Ethiopian girls and women on the streets of Addis Ababa.

The male chauvinism is visible everywhere, starting from the streets, the shops, moving on to schools and workplaces, with daily threats and intimidation as a violation of their human rights. In some cases it goes beyond verbal insults, progressing to physical abuse. Some of the comments are paternalistic and demeaning, while others can be dangerous, masked within an understanding vocabulary, such as saying, “smile”, conveying the message of submissiveness. And comments like, “talk to me”, inferring the obligation for a woman to spare time for any man who requests it. In a society that normalizes early marriage and domestic violence, it is another crime that is tolerated by silencing its girls and women

Women are made to feel uncomfortable and fear walking the streets if it means passing groups of men, who observe the female form as if it were an alien thing. Many take the abuse, scared of speaking up, considering it as a sign of getting attention, while others choose to fight and develop self-defense mechanisms. Mekdes Melaku, 17, a student at Miskaye Hizunan Medhanialem Church, decided to maintain silence and get on with her life. She comes from the Cazainchis area and has to walk a short distance from her taxi, when she often faces derogatory remarks. “It happens to girls/women,” she says, as if it is a normal occurrence.

She does not mind if they call her “yene konjo” (my beauty), but is upset if they mention the scar on her face. Another victim of the insensitive Addis streets, still she prefers to be silent and walk shamefully past. She knows if she says anything she might face a worse situation, such as being slapped or beaten up. This has happened to her since she was 13 or 14, and the frequent insults have killed her fighting spirit. Now she thinks it is the fate of every girl to suffer like this, and happens because men view women as their property, wanting to dominate in every way. The street is full of men who want to teach women how to be women. In a country with ravishing poverty, where women are physically abused, raped and tortured, verbal assault can seem like the least of their problems, yet many believe oppression is the same whatever form it takes. One is Bethlehem Gebre, currently studying for her PhD at the University of South Africa, who boldly says that Addis Ababa is not a safe place for women. She believes that in Ethiopia women are not considered to be human beings and often have their dignity violated, their existence “objectified as a sexual being, making us less than human”.

The patriarchal society allows men to be the makers and breakers of everything, which according to her is deeply engraved in a “beautiful culture” that normalizes the oppression of women. The root cause for this patriarchy, Bethlehem believes, lies in the definition of masculinity. Starting from childhood girls are portrayed as weak, subordinate and created for men, while men are depicted as strong, providers, brave and aggressive. “We grow up hearing that. ‘Don't cry, you are a man? Be strong!' Or comments like, ‘Are you a woman?' These definitions define how women and men should act,” Bethlehem told The Reporter.

Her alternative to eliminate sexism and misogyny states that children should grow up in a “no gender” society, where roles and behavior are not defined. It seems that it is not just parents who play an important role in raising and shaping a child, but the whole community, including schools and the media. She remembers an incident when her young son tried to differentiate men and women using jobs and roles, like how they dress or walk, after listening to his teacher. Bethlehem deliberated this conditioning and decided to talk to his teacher, who, according to her, did not understand patriarchy or the normalization of oppression. Toys like Barbie Dolls for young girls imply submission from an early stage, she says, while toy guns and race cars for boys put them as the aggressors, all playing a vital role in shaping children. Even though submissiveness can be interchanged as “good woman or wife material”, she does not take that stand. She has got into fights when defending herself, like once while waiting for a taxi the weyala (a taxi driver's assistant) asked if she was working on the street (a prostitute), to which she responded by slapping him, unafraid of any retribution.

Many men are surprised when girls respond or hit them back, as they see no problem with their actions. Even though “lekefa” (verbal harassment) is considered the norm some believe it is still only done by a few “unmannered youths”, although gender theorists maintain it is a reflection of the patriarchal society. They say it is deeply embedded in the culture, including in rural parts of the country where approaches are considered as “pickups”. In many music videos men pull or slap women, pulling up the “netela” (a traditional scarf) with a stick, or “guntela”. The ‘lekefa' appears to be the urban form, often excused as a pickup. “Why do you make a fuss about it? Aren't you a woman?” appears to be the common phrase that many girls hear growing up.

For Deborah Bogale, 28, oppression should be recognized, even if it is not accepted by the oppressors or the oppressed. Growing up in Addis she remembers how she was harassed, yet was told to be brave and ignore it, although sometimes her silence exploded and she fought back. Once while waiting for a friend around the Ambassador area a man slapped her on the buttocks, and she responded by throwing a stone at him. As the saying goes, “Too much patience is cowardice”, and she broke her silence by defending herself. During the holidays it gets worse, with the streets full of drunk or economically frustrated people eager to vent their irritation on girls and women. Deborah is saddened that it is the poorer element of society who appear to be the biggest culprits of abuse towards women on the streets, whereas sexual harassment in the office is reserved for the “rich ones”. The streets are full of unemployed people who are victims of the patriarchy, and she believes men are like this because it is all they know. She calls society “hypocritical”, silencing the victims instead of punishing the perpetrators. “What I wear, how I live my life or how I behave is no man's business,” Deborah told The Reporter. “That is the problem with many men in a patriarchal society, they make it their business to control other human beings.”

She has lived in many countries, including Norway and Germany, and has visited many more. She never faced any street harassment and took it for granted at the time.

She talks of an intersectional solution to the problem, where men should be involved. The fight against gender violence and sexual assault is disregarded as a “women's thing” instead of a human rights violation, so she recommends involving everyone. And she also believes in defending oneself, recommending women take self-defense classes and carry pepper spray.

In a country where there is no sexual assault education it is not only the boys and men who are normalized, but also the women. Nowadays they discuss on various radio shows whether ‘lekefa' is acceptable or not, rather than condemning it. Even female university graduates see the verbal abuse and groping as a normal thing, saying: “It happens.”

According to Almaz Tafesse, gender office director at Addis Ababa University, society norms spread to the campus and women rarely report sexual harassment, as they are scared or suspicious of the law. On average only two cases are reported per semester, but Almaz says that this does not point to the non-existence of harassment. “Women students don't know their rights, and even if they do they are not assertive about their case,” Almaz told The Reporter. “They don't know how to keep evidence in order to report it. Rather they see it as exposing themselves.”

She believes in changing this normalization process through an attitude and behavioral adjustment, which should be shaped at a young age by teaching women their rights, although she concedes there is a long way to go. Gender expert Teshome Beyene agrees change may not come easily, in a culture that not only defines masculinity as aggressive but also encourages early marriage. He believes the root cause is a society that encourages male dominance and aggression, with women unable to make decisions in the house, let alone on the streets. Teshome believes awareness is increasing and he sees glimpses of change. There are many laws and policies to protect women from any form of violence, making it easier to report incidents. Even though some men refrain from abuse through fear of the repercussions, he admits there is no real change among the society's values.

“I do not believe society will bring about changes regarding sexual harassment and sexual violence,” Teshome told The Reporter. “There is a long way to go even to bring a little change. I am pessimistic because this is a society where aggressiveness is a norm, abusing and harassing women is the culture.”

He remains cautious, as even the people working to prevent sexual assaults do not appear to have changed their attitude; rather they pretend there is progress. And in a society that normalizes rape rapid change may be far off. At the Ministry of Women, Youth and Children's Affairs, public relations officer Abiy Ephrem believes even though there are initiatives to tackle harassment there seems to be little significant change. He says that ignorance and the normalization make verbal or physical harassment widespread, while highlighting that the Ministry is engaged in making women aware of their rights, an important process. Yet many still believe there is a problem in implementing law and policies, and Abiy believes there is a gap. “Whether with the decision makers or the enforcement it is all a reflection of society. We believe the implementers should be capacitated and their awareness raised; we are doing that,” Abiy told The Reporter.

Even though there is a law that prevents physical abuse there is no specific legislation regarding verbal abuse, which indicates it is not considered an issue. According to Tafesse Wondimu, deputy commander at the Menen area police station, there has never been a report or case regarding a verbal assault, which he regards as “minor and petty things”. He says harassment is a normal occurrence and a way to get “suitors” for marriage. As there is no defined law they would treat it under “insult and intimidation”, which as long as three witnesses are presented can lead to jail terms of up to three years. It is not an easy process for a common and disturbing issue, making it almost impossible for even the bravest women to report incidents.