Sunday 19 August 2018

The faces behind the Yellow Movement: How Ethiopia’s young women are vowing to change culture of sexual harassment, rape and domestic violence

Hilina Berhanu
Hilina Berhanu
Aklile Solomon (25)
Selam Mussie (27)

Catherine Devine in Ethiopia

The young, educated and empowered women of Ethiopia have vowed to make a change to their country’s culture of sexual harassment, rape and domestic violence.

A group of young activists, who are among the few privileged women to graduate from university in Ethiopia and abroad, have set up a movement in the bid to empower women.

The Yellow Movement based in Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa gives women a voice and shines a light on the shocking examples of abuse suffered by women.

For the first time in Ethiopia, the 2016 Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS) included Domestic Violence as one of its indicators.

Based on the government’s survey, 35 per cent of all married women have experienced sexual, emotional or physical violence from their husband or partner at some time.

In 2015, a 15-year-old Ethiopian girl called Tejnesh Leweg’neh was abducted by three men. When she refused to marry one of them they pushed her off a cliff and she was left paralysed.

That same month, 16-year-old Hanna Lalango, from Addis Ababa, was abducted by a group of men from a minibus on the outskirts of Addis. She was raped over several days and died in hospital about a month later from her injuries.

These shocking stories, among others inspired the Yellow Movement to act.

One of the co-founders, a law lecturer at Addis Ababa University, Hilina Berhanu, said that women are subjected to sexual harassment and gender abuse in Ethiopia on a daily basis.

Hilina (25) from Addis Ababa said that even women with high societal positions suffer from sexual abuse every day.

“Ironically, I was at a university meeting about gender equality and empowerment when my colleague, who is a government official, put his hand down the back of my dress,” Hilina told Independent.ie.

“I couldn’t believe it. I told myself I was just imagining it but then he slipped his fingers down to my underwear. I was so shocked that I just got up and left.

“I am quite a small woman, and quite childlike, so men act very sexual towards me. Even though I am privileged and have a good position in society, I am still subjected to this abuse.”

Hilina decided to sue her colleague, becoming the first ever woman academic to sue another staff member at Addis Ababa University.

“I was very ashamed but as a law professor and a female activist I am always encouraging my students to take action against this kind of abuse. If I didn’t stand up for myself, how could I expect people who are less privileged than me to do so?”

The law professor launched a complaint against her colleague to the university.

“They said I needed evidence and I asked other people who were at the meeting when I was abused to testify. Most refused and one man even testified against me saying that I made it up. The man who abused me had a high position in the university and so he was very powerful. Nobody wanted to testify against him and face losing their jobs.”

Hilina, knowing that she needed solid evidence, went to her colleague’s office and put her phone on record.

“I wanted to catch him admitting he had abused me or if he did anything again I would have it recorded. My friend waited outside the door and I told him to come in if he didn’t hear anything after 10 minutes.

“My colleague didn’t suspect a thing and figured I was there to get more of what he did the last time. So dismissing our agenda for meeting, he started touching me asking ‘show me where I touched you?’ He starting pushing me around and pushed me onto his sofa, grabbing me by the back. I immediately paged my friend and he knocked on the door as if he was waiting for us to finish. I hate to think what would have happened if my friend wasn’t there .”

Hilina used the recording as evidence and more charges were brought against her colleague.

However, the university disciplinary committee repeatedly refused to act on the case through consistent delays.

“After four months of waiting for a disciplinary decision, I went to the minister of education and begged for help.

“In the four months, my reputation was ruined on campus. People said that I was making it up because I was looking for a promotion or that I was begging for it by the way I dressed. Typical victim blaming. I was terrified that my career was over.”

The minister of education acted upon hearing the story and forced Addis Ababa University to discipline the man in question.

“The university said that because he was a good citizen they couldn’t fire him but they moved him down a rank in the university. He now has a smaller office and a smaller on-site house. That is all the discipline he got,” Hilina said.

“A top university official told me that they didn’t want to act as such but that the ministerial level shaming called for an immediate action. He said that the university didn’t want to make a ruling because I was not married and therefore not trustworthy.  He also said that he thinks that my colleague suffered more than I did and that if they knew I was going to make it so public, they would have made my colleague apologise in the first place – a route preferred by God and elders of the university community.”

Hilina, who is an activist and part of the Yellow Movement organisation for women’s rights, said that the whole experience was “terrifying” and “exhausting”.

“Women face this kind of harassment every day and no class group is exempt. It’s because of these experiences that we have movements like the Yellow Movement and Setaweet to help empower women here in Ethiopia.”

Yellow Movement activists Aklile Solomon (25) and Selam Mussie (27) met with Independent.ie to share their experiences of harassment in education in Ethiopia.

“We started the Yellow Movement because terrible things were happening to women every day and nobody was giving them a voice. We came together as a group of young women and said ‘what can we do?’ We decided to set up the movement to remember these women and to empower other women to speak up,” co-founder Aklile Solomon told Independent.ie.

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Aklile Solomon (25)

The Yellow Movement at Addis Ababa University holds fundraisers to help other girls to go to education. They buy stationary materials  for young girls as well as providing them with basic sanitary products.

“On Valentine’s Day we sell chocolate and flowers in order to raise money. Companies also give us money and we donate the money to the Yellow Movement scholarship fund which helps women with basic needs and access to education.”

The movement also aims to raise awareness and is holding an event called the 16 days of activism to raise awareness on gender based violence and sexual harassment .

“Violence and harassment against women is very common here in Ethiopia. Sometimes it is more dangerous to speak out than to stay quiet. We try to have these conversations and let women know their rights,” said Aklile.

Aklile, who is finishing her masters in Human Rights at Central European University, said that while she always had access to education, it wasn’t always easy being a girl.

“I would get some weird looks sometimes. Once I was studying in the library and I was chased out by a group of boys. To them it is funny but to me it was terrifying.”

Yellow Movement member, Selam Mussie (27), said that more education and empowerment is needed to help women escape from domestic violence and harassment.

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Selam Mussie (27)

“There are certain places that most of us are terrified of passing through because the men there make us feel uncomfortable. It starts from common catcalls, to dissing, to a physical level where they could follow to grab or touch private parts.

“People think that if gender violence is common then it’s ok.

 “Through a sponsorship programme with the UK, I attended university in Sussex. It was very empowering for me to get this insight and more programmes like this is needed for women in Ethiopia,” said Selam.

“The culture in Ethiopia is very man-made and the world media has a role to highlight the conditions that women are facing here and helping through education to become more empowered.

“The mentality and culture of Ethiopia needs to change. Women are being murdered, raped and abused on a daily basis and we as women need to stand up and fight for change. We hope that movements like the Yellow Movement will educate and empower women and we are going to keep fighting for the women of Ethiopia.”

*This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

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