Unravelling Challenges and Myths behind Sexual Harassment at Ethiopian Universities

This blog was drafted by members of the Yellow Movement at Addis Ababa University.  The views and opinions expressed in the blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government.

Photo USAID Ethiopia_n

Sexual harassment is one of the biggest setbacks to women at Ethiopian universities. Female students, academic and administrative staff all face harassment from their colleagues. Some of the most common types of harassment include teachers asking students for dates/inappropriate private meeting, expectations of sexual favors and using that as a parameter for promotion at work or as a bargaining tool for a better grade, imposing social, physiological sanctions on a female who does not show interest, unwanted physical contact of all forms etc.

In response to matters of sexual harassment, Ethiopian institutions of higher education have adopted policies and set up independent structures to address claims of sexual harassment. While this is welcome, it remains difficult for women to bring a claim forward. Why?

Here are some of the challenges and myths surrounding sexual harassment:

  1. Privileged women, such as those at universities, are not harassed. As young, educated, economically privileged, urban based, well networked – working (feminist academics) women who have faced a fair share of sexual harassment on campus, we too know that no female is exempted from the potential of facing sexual harassment.
  2. Claims of sexual harassment are usually barred by a slow justice system that is deliberately designed to frustrate women into dropping the case. We, like the many women before us, assumed that the actual harassment was the height of the pain, but the process can be just as painful.
  3. While justice is being delayed, you should expect to encounter a social backlash and unwanted interventions, and this deters women from bringing allegations forward. Many within the institutional structure will encourage the woman to drop her claim by sympathizing with the perpetrator. Perpetrators are mostly regarded as kind family men and the women are deemed as an attention seeking- temptress, someone who is out to ruin the man’s life. Questions such as, ‘What were you doing in that place’ and ‘How dare you be emotional for a simple act of touching and kissing and grabbing when thousands of rape cases are pending’ are to be expected.
  4. What is even more devastating is the shaming of women who have been harassed. After bringing claims, these women are blamed for dressing in a way that encourages the men to act a certain way. They are regarded as flirts who encourage this kind of behavior. The problems of the “rape culture” are embedded deep in our patriarchal systems and institutions — and of course they play out interpersonally. We have learned that ‘sexism’ and ‘rape culture’ is our first language. We live in a world where women are much more likely to be blamed for their own assaults, rather than heard. And when women of a certain age and marital status speak up against abusers, they’re less likely to be heard as compared to ‘senior- married’ women.

Our struggle will continue!

The Yellow Movement.