Does Ethiopia have an organized feminist movement? Yes. But its performance has been mixed. Unless deliberate, consciously sustained and strategic steps are taken at the level of institution building, resource allocation and leadership, gender equality may take another 100 years to be achieved. A strong women's movement is indispensable to catalyze change.
When doing research for this article, I encountered the usual problems of not finding adequate materials to provide the background. Moreover, I encountered what I can only described as a thinly veiled disdain for feminism in general. All the articles and books I came across were either a reaction to a specific horrific incident that happened to women in Ethiopia like Hana Lelango's gang rape, the small number of publicized acid attack cases and so forth, or they are criticizing that feminism is destroying the Ethiopian culture. However, I ran into an article that asked the question all of us needed to hear an answer to. This author writes:
“Feminist leadership is a matter of grave concern in Ethiopia where educated women appear to be obliged to fight individual battles to sustain their own agendas on the emancipation of women. Being manipulated by the government-led ‘woman question’ rhetoric, many fail to come to terms with charting such an independent discourse. What is holding them back? Could it be their ideological make-up that is influenced by state and religious indoctrination? Or perhaps their own shortcomings where many fail to comprehend what feminist leadership is all about?” (Seble Teweldebirhan: Ethiopian Women's Movement Needs a New Strategy. Jan 11, 2012 on ezega.com.)
Before we move on to the need for feminist leadership, we must investigate the history of Ethiopian feminist movements. Has Ethiopia ever had an organized feminist movement? If yes, what was their approach and how did they go about accomplishing their goals? If no, why not? What held women back? Did the lack of an organized feminist movement hold us back from achieving equality? For us to really understand what it was like for the women of the previous generation, we chose to hear it from the horse’s mouth. We asked the sources, the prominent women of politics, art, women’s rights organizations, members of the Ethiopian student movement, and others. These women are now in the prime of their lives and their stories are an inspiration to us all.
I have found varying answers from these women. But they have echoed the same message on the existence of an Ethiopian feminist movement. Feminism may have a different meaning to different people, but when we take a definition used by women’s rights champion Meaza Ashenafi, feminism means “looking at the world through the eyes of women and taking a disruptive action to empower women and to change gender imbalance in the society in any sphere of life”.
Feminist movements grow at different paces in different countries depending on the history, culture, economy, social progress and other related factors. However, feminism in the West was coopted by the loudest of voices and by the those who would like to use it to discredit all that it has done for women and men around the world. So, because of Ethiopia’s cultural sensitivity, feminism has been associated with the patriarchal perception of the movement as ‘bra burning, man hating hooligans’, as defined by a male friend of mine. Which can be taken as a reason for the slow paces of growth of feminist movements in Ethiopia.
However, over the years, Ethiopian women have organized themselves around various economic, social and political issues to bring positive change and have come a long way to achieve progress in legal and policy reform, education and health care, political participation and agency, economic participation and promotion and protection of rights. So the answer to whether or not we have ever had organized feminist movements is, yes. As a lifelong advocate for women's rights told me, "We may not have called ourselves feminist because of the stigma associated with the term, but we were always there, asking the women's question, asking to be included."
Ethiopian women have made organized movements since the 1930s. Yet, despite the progress, challenges persist and women's empowerment and gender equality is far from achieved. The slow pace of change is caused by multifaceted factors and the lack of a strong feminist movement or the difficulty to sustain those that have emerged. Unfortunately, social changes such as gender equality come progressively and incrementally.
However, unless deliberate, consciously sustained and strategic steps are taken at the level of institution building, resource allocation and leadership, gender equality may take another 100 years to be achieved. For this reason, strong women's movements are an indispensable “watchdog” to catalyze change.
The Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) and the Network of Ethiopian Women's Associations are two of these ‘watchdog’ organizations that came about at the height of political discussion in Ethiopian politics, from 1991 on. At the time the associations were instrumental in creating the political conversation that became the catalyst of change for the revision of the Ethiopia Family Law, the justice system and highlighted the fact that women’s issues have been neglected for long. As any other movement in Ethiopia, the associations operated in the political atmosphere of their time, with the entailing challenges and risks. Although their political engagement has been constrained for various reasons, EWLA continues to provide essential legal services for Ethiopian women and NEWA brings together the various women's organizations operating in the country.
In addition to these organizations, there is a new watchdog association committed to women's rights in Ethiopia, Setaweet. Setaweet, meaning 'Of woman', was founded in June 2014, by two Ethiopian feminists, Sehin Teferra (PhD) and Billene Seyoum, who saw that Ethiopian feminists need a safe space to discuss and, if we are to make any difference at all, to come together. The movement tries to challenge social norms and fight sexism in every sphere possible. Two years on the movement has given birth to different ripples, and brought together women from different walks of life with a common principle of feminism. It brings women who, as the author above said, “were forced to fight their own individual battles”, and create connections between people.
The movement has been involved in different initiatives that are moving the fight for gender equality in Ethiopia once step further. The first is the monthly Setaweet Circle which meets every second Tuesday of the month to discuss research based feminist topics. The circle is open to all to attend and women, including those who don't identify as feminist, are invited to participate. These conversations have inspired many initiatives. Realizing that for the feminist movement to be successful we need to work with men, Setaweet organizes on open session every three months on topics that are essential to women and which are open to both women and men.
In addition to the Setaweet circles, Setaweet leads different initiatives to bring women together. One of our projects is the “Qey Qemis” (meaning 'Red Dress') campaign which is designed to educate about and advocate against gender-based violence. Qey Qemis, a multi-year and multi-sectoral campaign, involves government institutions, private companies and concerned citizens.
In addition, Setaweet has developed a feminist curriculum for Ethiopian secondary schools. Addressing existing gaps on gender equality within mainstream education, our highly interactive curriculum will help students question the way they practice their femininities and masculinities, and help them address issues such as male privilege and the commodification of women's sexuality. The activities of Setaweet are administered by Setaweet PLC which was incorporated as a share company in mid-2016. In addition to its public sector engagement, the company provides high-quality on-demand research and training services for corporate clients and NGOs.
In 21th century Ethiopia, even though it might not seem like it until you put on your 'feminist lens', there is much left to do in the area of gender equality. The opportunities to change the current status quo of inequality are endless, and so are the challenges. In a political environment that is currently more concerned about peace and security, with the ‘women agenda’ put on the back burner, this is the time we need movements like Setaweet. It is our responsibility to ask the questions that need answering, and remind everyone that women are not just an afterthought, that the largest majority in the country needs to be included in the political decisions of the country.
As a movement, Setaweet has shed the image of Ethiopian women’s movements as elitist. It has created a platform where any women can be part of, where the old views of women as either bickering all the time or in perpetual competition are left at the door; where support is given and sisterhood is created; where untold stories are brought to life; where generations dialogue to bring change, and where business and social justice intertwine to create the first major feminist movement in Ethiopia.
* Pomi Ayalew is a feminist activist working with one of the first feminist movements in Ethiopia. She has a BA in Political Science and International Relations and an MA in Peace and Security. She has been with Setaweet (meaning ‘of women’ in Amharic) for two years as Communication and Advisory Group member.
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