It was in part Ethiopian opposition leader and activist Birtukan Midekssa’s campaign for women’s rights that led to her imprisonment by the Zenawi government, writes Alemayehu G. Mariam. Highlighting the challenges Ethiopian women continue to face, Mariam looks to Midekssa’s legacy for a vision of a better Ethiopia, in which women’s rights are recognised and in which women play a vital role in the country’s history.
WOMEN IN THE ‘PRESENT COUNTRY OF ETHIOPIA’
Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia's foremost political prisoner and first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, enjoyed talking about an allegorical ‘future country of Ethiopia’ that would become an African oasis of democracy and a bastion of human rights and the rule of law in the continent. In Birtukan's ‘future Ethiopia’ women and men would live not only as equals under the law, but also work together to create a progressive and compassionate society in which women are free from domestic violence and sexual exploitation, have access to adequate health and maternal care and are provided education to free them from culturally-enforced ignorance, submissiveness and subjugation. But if the situation of women in the ‘present country of Ethiopia’ is any indication, Birtukan's ‘future country’ is in deep, deep trouble.
Article 35 of the Ethiopian Constitution (1995) guarantees women not only full equality but also preferential treatment ‘in the political, economic and social fields both within public and private organizations.’ Women are provided sweeping constitutional protections from ‘all laws, stereotyped ideas and customs which oppress women or otherwise adversely affect their physical and mental well-being.’ They have guaranteed property rights and ‘the right of access to education and information on family planning’ to ‘prevent health hazards resulting from child birth.’ Article 34 secures matrimonial contractual rights for ‘women attaining the legal age of marriage.’ It mandates that ‘marriage shall be based on the free and full consent of the intending spouses.’ Even before the rights of women were ‘constitutionalized’ in 1995, the ruling dictatorship of Meles Zenawi took the lead by issuing a National Policy on Women in 1993 with the aim ‘to institutionalize the political, economical, and social rights of women by creating an appropriate structure in government offices and institutions so that the public policies and interventions are gender-sensitive and can ensure equitable development for all Ethiopian men and women.’ After a lapse of seventeen years, the evidence on the status of women in Ethiopia society is horrifying and shocking to the conscience.
The 2000 US State Department Human Rights Country Report on Ethiopia described the status of women in appallingly disheartening terms:
‘The Constitution provides for the equality of women; however, these provisions often are not applied in practice. Furthermore, these provisions often are in conflict with the 1960 Civil Code and the 1957 Penal Code, both of which still are in force. The 1960 Civil Code is based on a monarchical constitution that treated women as if they were children or disabled. Discriminatory regulations in the civil code include recognizing the husband as the legal head of the family and designating him as the sole guardian of children over five years old. Domestic violence is not considered a serious justification under the law to obtain a divorce. Irrespective of the number of years the marriage has existed, the number of children raised and the joint property, the woman is entitled to only 3 months' financial support should the relationship end. However, a husband has no obligation to provide financial assistance to his family and, as a result, women and children sometimes are abandoned when there is a problem in the marriage. All land belongs to the State; however, land reforms enacted in March 1997 stipulate that women may obtain government leases to land. Discrimination is most acute in rural areas, where 85 per cent of the population lives. In urban areas women have fewer employment opportunities than men do and the jobs available do not provide equal pay for equal work. As a result of changes in the Labor Law in 1998, thousands of women traveled to the Middle East as industrial and domestic workers. There were credible reports that female workers were abused and even killed in these positions.’
A decade later, the 2010 US. State Department Human Rights Country Report on Ethiopia described the status of women in similar stark terms:
‘The constitution provides women the same rights and protections as men. Harmful Traditional Practices (HTPs) such as FGM (female genital mutilation), abduction, and rape are explicitly criminalized; however, enforcement of these laws lagged. Women and girls experienced gender-based violence daily, but it was underreported due to shame, fear, or a victim's ignorance of legal protections. Domestic violence, including spousal abuse, was a pervasive social problem. The 2005 Demographic and Health Survey found that 81 percent of women believed a husband had a right to beat his wife. Prostitution was legal for persons over age 18 and was commonly practiced around the country. Sexual harassment was widespread [and] harassment-related laws were not enforced. The law sets the legal marriage age for girls and boys at 18; however, this law was not enforced. For example, a 2006 Pathfinder International study found that in the Amhara region, 48 percent of women were married before the age of 15, the highest early marriage rate in the country. Limited access to family planning services, high fertility, low reproductive health and emergency obstetric services, and poor nutritional status and infections all contributed to high maternal mortality ratio...Discrimination against women was most acute in rural areas, where 85 percent of the population was located. There was limited legal recognition of common law marriage. Irrespective of the number of years the marriage existed, the number of children raised, and joint property, the law entitled women to only three months' financial support if a relationship ended. A common-law husband had no obligation to provide financial assistance to his family, and as a result, women and children sometimes faced abandonment. In urban areas women had fewer employment opportunities than men, and the jobs available did not provide equal pay for equal work.’
It is manifest that in 2010, the vast majority of Ethiopian women, particularly in the rural areas, enjoy very little personal security against violence and degradation. In fact, these women believe that violence and degradation is an appropriate form of treatment for women. According to the 2005 Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey (‘a nationally representative survey of 14,070 women age 15-49 and 6,033 men age 15-59’) ‘81% of Ethiopian women believe their husbands have the right to beat them if they burn food, refuse sex, or go somewhere without their husband's consent’. Ethiopian women are not only lacking personal security but also social security. Seventy- five percent of all Ethiopian women are illiterate, and consequently bear the heaviest burden of poverty. Maternal deaths from childbirth for Ethiopian women is among the highest in the world. High HIV infection rates, child marriages and the devastating health consequences associated with them and many other risk factors have left Ethiopian women in a state of misery and despair facing a daily ordeal for survival. With one of the highest birth rates in the world, Ethiopia's population is projected to increase by 20 million in the next 10 years and double to 160 million by 2050.
THANKS FOR NOTHING!
Dictator Zenawi, in a ‘victory’ speech celebrating his 99.6 per cent win in the May 2010 ‘election’, thanked Ethiopian women ‘boundlessly’:
‘We, the members of EPRDF, with great humility offer our gratitude and appreciation to the voters who have given us their support freely and democratically. We also offer our thanks to the real backbone of our organization, the women of Ethiopia who are committed to our struggle due to their realization of our track record on gender equality and who want to forge ahead on this path of peace, development and democratization. Our admiration to the women of Ethiopia is indeed boundless!’
It is disconcerting to think of the vast majority of Ethiopian women who suffer in absolute misery and wretchedness becoming a ‘backbone’ to anyone. But if we must resort to anatomical analogies, women can best be described as the rump of Ethiopian society, little valued and appreciated. Their backbones, spirit and will have long been shattered by official neglect and indifference and the daily reality of domestic violence, illiteracy, sexual exploitation, underage marriages, lack of education and grinding poverty. It is adding insult to injury to patronise them as the ‘backbone’ of a potbellied dictatorship when they can barely stand up on their own two feet. If we are to offer ‘admiration’ to Ethiopian women (and they deserve it all), it is only because of their incredible capacity to withstand unimaginably ‘boundless’ suffering, degradation, cruelty and indifference. Even illiterate women know when they are being patronised by crocodilian words of ‘humility’, ‘gratitude’ and ‘appreciation’.
MISOGYNISTIC OR CHAUVENISTIC?
I am not sure of the qualitative difference between misogyny and male chauvinism. Misogynists hate and have total contempt for women. A male chauvinist just believes women are naturally inferior to men and do not deserve equal treatment. If it is not misogyny or male chauvinism, what on earth could possibly explain the fact that ‘81% of Ethiopian women believe their husbands have the right to beat them if they burn food, refuse sex, or go somewhere without their husband's consent’? This deeply disturbing fact was historically observed only among slaves. The slave was absolutely terrified of his master and always lived in fear of his master's whims and fancy. The slave believed his master could do whatever he wanted to him because he understood himself to be his master's property. The slave, totally dependent on his master for his very existence, pinned the blame for his master's cruelty and depravity on himself. The slave believed that mistreatment and abuse by his master is his divinely foreordained destiny. Could it be that long after the odious institution of slavery has been abolished in the world, the overwhelming majority of women shackled by domestic violence, inequality, sexual exploitation, destructive traditions and customs and poverty continue to believe themselves to be chattel property (personal property) to their husbands and men?
ETHIOPIAN WOMEN’S HUMAN RIGHTS
If 81 per cent of Ethiopian women believe they are the property of their husbands, it seems obvious that they are not aware of their human rights secured under international law. Since 1948 there have been at least ten major international conventions and protocols protecting the human rights of women throughout the world. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, ratified by Ethiopia in 1981, prohibits as discrimination a variety of actions that compound the subjugation of women and requires state parties to take action to eliminate them. Governments are required to act and eliminate ‘social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.’ A special legal duty is imposed upon governments to ‘take into account the particular problems faced by rural women and take all appropriate measures to ensure the application of the provisions of the present Convention.’ Women have the ‘right freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent.’ Children cannot give free and full consent to marriage. As parents, women shall have equal rights ‘irrespective of their marital status, in matters relating to their children.’ It is discriminatory to arbitrarily deny women spousal support and equal custody rights at divorce. Various other conventions ensure that women are protected from involuntary servitude, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Domestic violence cannot be ignored as simple ‘family misunderstanding’ but must be prosecuted as a serious crime. The Convention on the Rights of the Child protects young girls from being forced to undergo the painful and degrading practice of genital mutilation and rape in the form of child marriages.
CALLING FOR A MOVEMENT FOR ETHIOPIAN WOMEN’S HUMAN RIGHTS
It is manifest that the vast majority of Ethiopian women are trapped in a patriarchal and paternalistic system that exploits them sexually, socially, politically and in every other way. For centuries, Ethiopian law has ‘treated women as if they were children or disabled.’ Discrimination, abuse and mistreatment against Ethiopian women has continued for so long that it is time to end the silence and stand up and speak up against their dehumanisation. All Ethiopians, and particularly the educated ones and those in power, should publicly condemn the brutal practice of female genital mutilation. It is an atrocious and dreadful custom. All educational and informational efforts must be employed to eliminate it. The rampant violence against women must not be tolerated. It must be combated through a combination of education, information and rigorous prosecutions of abusers. If actions or lack of action speaks louder than words, it is obvious that Ethiopian men do not think much of their women's lives and dignity and could be straddling that thin line between misogyny and male chauvinism. A broad social movement needs to be established to challenge all practices that degrade women and challenge cultural and social patterns defining the lopsided power relationship between men and women in Ethiopian society.
NEW CULTURE OF WOMEN’S ACTIVISM AND ASSERTIVENESS IS NEEDED
Throughout the world women have organised effectively to form political, cultural and economic movements aimed at establishing greater rights and securing effective legal protection for women. In some part of the world the label ‘women's liberation’ has been given to describe the campaign for women's rights. Those who advocate for women's rights have been called ‘feminists’ because of their efforts to change traditional perspectives on a wide range of issues covering domestic violence, sexual harassment and exploitation, economic equality and elimination of all forms of gender discrimination against women.
Labels and designations for Ethiopian women's activism are unimportant in describing the need for activism. What is important is the realisation that effective activism and advocacy on behalf of Ethiopian women is long overdue. Well-educated and well-placed Ethiopian women are in the best position to engage in activism to stop violence against women, help teach them to assert their legal and human rights and research and document the condition of women in society for informed policy-making. They are also in the best position to challenge Ethiopian men to reconsider their long held beliefs about women and encourage and show them how they can change their outdated beliefs and unhealthy behavior towards women. In other words it is possible to help Ethiopian men gain new awareness and consciousness about the plight of their women and help protect their dignity and value in society. In this regard I believe Diaspora Ethiopian women bear special responsibility to articulate Ethiopian women's issues in international forums.
YOUNG ETHIOPIAN WOMEN NEED FEMALE ROLE MODELS
I often wonder if many Ethiopian fathers seriously ponder whether our daughters have good role models in strong, ethical and assertive Ethiopian women. It pains me to think that the vast majority of girls growing up in Ethiopia today will absorb the beliefs from their mothers and society that domestic violence and sexual exploitation are acceptable; that male supremacy is the natural order of things, that they will likely be married off at a young age, have children while they are themselves children and very likely die an early death from complications of childbirth.
I truly hope that all of the young Ethiopian girls will look up to Birtukan Midekssa and understand that she stood up not only for her rights and theirs, but also that she represents the new Ethiopian woman who stood up to the arrogance of power and male chauvinism. I have no doubts that if Birtukan dropped on her knees, bowed down and begged for mercy from her captors, as do women who face the daily reality of violence and physically abuse, she would be out of prison in heartbeat. We need more Ethiopian women like Birtukan who set new moral and ethical standards for the newer generation of women who in turn can change the attitudes and beliefs of the newer generation of men so they can together build ‘the future country of Ethiopia.’
THE QUESTION: TO BE OR NOT TO BE… BIRTUKAN
When I write about my heroine Birtukan Midekssa, I often refer to her as ‘Invictus’ (unconquered). Some wonder why I defend Birtukan passionately and ferociously against those who have unjustly imprisoned her and take every opportunity to humiliate and degrade her despite the universally recognised fact that she is innocent of any wrongdoing. I do so because Birtukan to me is the model of the new self-confident and dignified Ethiopian woman I hope to see in the ‘future country of Ethiopia.’ Birtukan chained in prison stands taller for the cause of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia than any man I know. She sacrificed motherhood to her 4-year old child so that the millions of little girls in Ethiopia could grow up in dignity, without physical abuse by men, educated and equal in every way to Ethiopian boys. Birtukan has shown more backbone and spine in standing up to dictatorship than anyone I know.
We can thank Ethiopian women until the cows come home, but as long as they have little personal and social security and are valued less and subjected to violence, there will be neither development, progress nor justice in Ethiopian society. The real question is not whether Ethiopian women can be the ‘backbone’ of a political party or even society. It is whether Ethiopian men can be the backbone, indeed have the backbone, to lift their women out of the misery, suffering, degradation, insecurity and value them for their inestimable worth.
In my flights of fancy, I let myself imagine millions of young Birtukan clones growing up in Ethiopia. I imagine these young women standing up to male chauvinism and defending their rights to be free from physical abuse, sexual exploitation and discrimination. I imagine them demanding accountability from their leaders and government. I imagine them taking leadership in vast numbers in society. Then I realise that I am not really lost in imagination. I had just taken a brief detour to Birtukan's ‘future country of Ethiopia’.
I will now say of Ethiopian women collectively what I have said of Birtukan individually:
Ethiopian women condemned to abuse, exploitation and indifference, but unconquered.
Ethiopian women subjected to the wrath of men and tearful, but defiant.
Ethiopian women beaten, bludgeoned and bloodied, but unbowed.
Ethiopian women mocked, ridiculed and disrespected, but gracious.
Ethiopian women vilified, strong-armed and manhandled, but unafraid.
Ethiopia under the crushing boots of soldiers of fortune.
Ethiopian women, Invictus!
FREE BIRTUKAN MIDEKSSA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS.
WOMEN OF ETHIOPIA, UNITE!
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
 http://www.measuredhs.com/pubs/pdf/FR179/FR179.pdf ; p. 244 (final report, 2006)