Tiemert Shimelis is one of the founders of an Ethiopian movement - #MeTooEthiopia - geared towards fighting gender-based violence among Ethiopians. This new effort is an offspring of @ShadesOfInjera, an Instagram account that has hosted important discussions on vital social issues for the last seven years. Tiemert recently held discussions with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on the movement, its importance, on some of the important yet symbolic gestures in the nation and on what the future holds when it comes to sexual harassment among Ethiopians – still a widespread taboo subject in many arenas. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Why was there a need to create an Ethiopian #Metoo movement?
We saw a need for survivors to connect and for gender-violence deniers to face the reality. While there are initiatives that are making strides to bring to light gender-based violence in Ethiopia we have never given a safe and easily accessible platform to encourage survivors to share their stories anonymously.
We have few feminist groups in Ethiopia that work with the local people, but there are no worldwide movements that connect Ethiopians who live in Ethiopia as well as those who do not. So, we wanted to connect and collaborate with local Ethiopian organization as well as worldwide women organizations to be able to fight this from all angels.
Based on personal accounts shared on our website and social media pages, we have noted that sexual assaults do not get reported in Ethiopia because there is a lack of awareness and open conversations in our schools, work places, media outlets and community as a whole. Also, victims are ignored by parents and other family members, sometimes even blamed. They also lack trust in the legal system’s ability to bring assailants to justice because there are little to no notable consequences for perpetrators. We wanted to change that.
What is your take on the recent developments within Ethiopia, more specifically in the last year?
We have been very happy with what PM Abiy has been doing when it comes to putting women in power and some of the things he said on the topic of gender equality and women seem timely and important from our perspectives. However, for someone who has been on the ground in Ethiopia for the past 6 months, the sweeping act of recognizing women in the higher levels of government is symbolic and not felt on the ground and in the larger public.
While we don’t deny the monumental leap these changes have been especially for little girls who can now see themselves achieving great things in their home country, we also fear that the real change that needs to take place on every level of society still has ways to go. We need to seize this momentum and move it from a dream of one good leader has for Ethiopia to a sustainable change that is backed by a shift in the mindset and culture that is accustomed to looking down on and oppressing women. We believe addressing issues related to sexual abuse and assault is a critical piece of this effort. Sexual abuse can have a significant impact on the psychological and social wellbeing of individuals. If left unaddressed it can have detrimental implications on an individual's ability to thrive in society.
True! We had to customize it for Ethiopia. The Ethiopian culture, social structure and legal system, sexual assault is a lot different in Ethiopia, than in the West. The power gap between men and women is even a lot bigger. The way women are seen in the Ethiopian culture is a lot more different than the western culture and male chauvinism is rampant. Even if child marriage/under age marriage is illegal by law, girls are still getting married at young as 12 and even younger in some instances.
Horrific domestic violence and acid attacks motivated by a sense of ownership of women are not uncommon. Because of this kind of specific issues, we had to create our own version of “Me Too” that gives tailor-made advocacy to the violence women face in Ethiopia.
Who are the founders of the group?
We are three. We are all sexual assault victims in varying degrees. We were born and raised in Ethiopia but currently live and work in the United States.
We have recently seen the R Kelly episode being used to encourage Ethiopians to speak on the issues of sexual harassment. How did that come about?
On a Social Media platform called Shades of Injera, many people asked to discuss sexual violence since the #MeToo movement has emerged/been on the news. The request to discuss sexual assault related issues grew higher after the recent LifeTime program called “Surviving R Kelly", so we had the discussion and we received hundreds if not thousands of stories within a couple of days with stories of women and some men sharing their stories of sexual assault.
Most reflected some of the abuse was done by close family members when they were young. We were appalled by the outpouring of pain and the denial that came mixed with reactions of shock and empathy in response to the stories. We felt it was a conversation that needed to be had regularly and that victims needed a safe place to feel validated and also connected with the resources they may need.
Despite sexual harassment being the norm in Ethiopia, there seems little or adequate effort to face it head on. How is Ethiopia faring, in terms of addressing the issue?
We have quite a long way to go. It begins with a cultural shift from silence and shame moving towards open and honest discussions about this widespread issue. Our culture and norms discourage and even condemn conversations about sex and therefore sexual harassment has infested the lives of millions of women and men. In conjunction with opening the platform to talk to each other and our children about it, we must influence, demand and structure policy change and implementation accordingly. A paradigm shift is needed as a society.
Share with me some of the ground work that is currently being done with the movement?
We have a #MeTooEthiopian team on the ground. We are working on a project to get all the details and steps victims take so that we can learn about the roadblocks. This project will help us see what to prioritize, where we should put our effort the most and it will also help us be very specific about addressing the issues on the ground in Addis when we reach out to lawmakers. We also plan to pass this information for those who are seeking help in Addis but don’t know what the steps are. In addition, we are looking into ways to work with local organization such as Setaweet.
As you mentioned previously, there are some noted but symbolic gestures on landmark appointment of women in key positions, including a gender-based violence advocate as the head of Ethiopia’s Supreme Court in Meaza Ashenafi. How do you think this helps address the fundamental issue of sexual harassment that is widespread in the country?
It’s undeniable the positive effect gender parity in the government has on women’s issues. Little girls all over the country will now have a chance to visualize their potentials through all the women who are in leadership positions. While we acknowledge that is a crucial move towards women empowerment and therefore lessening the burden of sexual violence on women, we fear it may only become a distraction from the real issues unless we see tangible strides in practice. This representation needs to materialize in new laws to aid in the fight against sexual violence while enforcing the ones already in place.
Many women attest to the daily harassment they experience in the nation. It's believed more current and widespread in the rural parts of Ethiopia.
Sexual harassment has many layers to it. It takes advantage of the personal, physical, economic and social realities of women and men alike. We believe empowerment in all of these areas and raising awareness about basic human rights are key to reducing attacks. A support system including but not limited to medical, legal, psychological and spiritual help needs to be in place.
Legal consequence faced by assailants need to be stronger and relentlessly enforced. Schools need to educate children and raising awareness is key. An aware and empowered citizen will demand change and when enough women are able to fight for their rights, change is sure to come.
What is the future plan?
Our plan is to heavily focus on creating awareness. As prevalent as sexual harassment is, speaking about it is deemed taboo and is often avoided. We see it and we are quiet about it. It has been such a big part of the culture that men/women have already accepted to be the norm/the culture.
We want the government of Ethiopia to recognize and acknowledge the movement and act on making a cultural and legislative change in order to fight sexual assault/violence. We believe these issues are holding our country back in every aspect. If we want to bring change to the country, we must start with women rights and ending sexual violence
We are currently working on connecting Ethiopian victims who live in Ethiopia and outside of Ethiopia with resources that can help them take legal action as well as help them start their healing process. We want to put pressure on the Ethiopian education system to include material contents to help tackle this issue through sex education that emphasizes on consent, respecting and empowering women.