The challenges women and girls have been facing and, in some cases, continue to face within the patrilocal society of Ethiopia are well known. Issues such as abduction, early marriage, dowry, wife inheritance, genital mutilation, sexual assault, and harassment are the common forms of abuse and neglect that have inspired action to mitigate them. A major milestone in the effort to address these issues has been the inclusion of women’s rights in the 1995 constitution, which tackled some of the well-known issues mentioned above.
According to the Constitution, all men and women who have reached legal marriageable age, regardless of race, nation, nationality, or religion, have the right to marry and start a family. In terms of marriage, they have equal rights while entering, during, and at the time of divorce. Laws shall be enacted to ensure the protection of the rights and interests of children at the time of divorce. Laws, customs, and practices that oppress or cause bodily or mental harm to women are prohibited. Women have equal rights with men in marriage as prescribed by this Constitution.
While there is still a long way to go and the pace of change is slow, the longstanding issues women face in our society are increasingly acknowledged and understood. Women’s representation in influential positions and increased educational opportunities for both men and women are some of the factors driving this change. Additionally, some NGOs have assisted in the implementation of these rights.
Organizations such as the Hundee Oromo Grassroots Development Association and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association have led many efforts to disseminate the ideals in the constitution and bring them to life across the country. Hundee’s strategy to implement these basic rights for women in remote areas was to educate the village leaders, such as Aba Gadas, on harmful traditional practices and have them disseminate and implement them on a wider scale. Similarly, the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers Association provided pro bono legal services for sexual assault survivors as well as education and support for at-risk women and girls.
However, there is a new frontier in the fight for women’s rights and privileges in our country that is not getting the attention it deserves. New digital forms of coercion and abuse are affecting an increasing number of women and girls across the country today, with little attention being given to them. It is known that the rise of social media and other technology adoption is far outstripping our understanding of their negative side effects in our society, but it is also creating a dangerous and toxic mix for women.
Women are currently the overwhelming victims in cases of cyberstalking, nonconsensual image sharing, scams, and human trafficking. Given the historical challenges mentioned above that still haunt us today and the slow pace of change, we risk undoing what little progress has been made. The digital world is uncharted territory for Ethiopian law. It is a matter of urgency that needs to be studied and addressed with a national legal and regulatory framework. Laws and regulations for the digital space would go a long way in protecting women against these terrible experiences; they would also create a safer and more positive experience for everyone.
Social media is part of the digital world that lets us connect with people around the world. On social media, one can get the news, buy products, share images, and talk to anyone in the world. It has also created new challenges for women to navigate, with cyberstalking, scamming, and human trafficking being widespread on these platforms. The detachment and protection a screen provides make it easier for a perpetrator to carry out a crime without fear of accountability or remorse.
Women who use social media are almost de facto victims of bullying and stalking, which is much easier due to the internet making women very accessible to perpetrators. In many cases, cyberstalking often leads to actual stalking, with what started behind the screen leading to an actual physical threat to women. Women do not have a support structure or network, nor do they know how to deal with or get help in these situations. The lack of protection for these advanced crimes usually corners the individual, disrupting their lives or, in the worst cases, threatening their lives.
Scammers and human traffickers are the other major threat in countries such as Ethiopia. They prey on women with impunity, relying on a lack of awareness and regulation. Young women who are seeking a better future are easy targets. Especially women in remote areas, who are more desperate to improve their futures through jobs in the city or educational opportunities, can be easily convinced to share private information or get human trafficked. Once under the control of traffickers, women face untold abuses. Powerless and without a support network in a new place, they are bound and under the complete control of criminals.
The internet is a place for all age groups, making young children, teenagers, young adults, and even old women vulnerable to cyberattacks. It demands urgent attention to protect women and, by extension, the entire society from these emerging issues.
Domestic violence, victim blaming, and nonconsensual image sharing
Victim blaming has been an issue women have faced in almost all societies throughout history. In patriarchal societies like ours, it is a major hindrance to carrying out justice when crimes against women are committed. Suggestive questions or statements like, What were you wearing? Were you drinking? Why were you out that late? etc.) suggest that the crime was avoidable or that the woman was inviting the crime.
This widespread, often unconscious practice of victim blaming creates an atmosphere that re-traumatizes the victim and narrows the possibility of healing from abuse and assault. This normalization often means gender-based violence goes unreported. The effects are widespread in all gender relations and even more acute in our understanding of domestic violence. Domestic violence is commonly understood as a crime (rape, physical assault, and verbal abuse) committed within a relationship (dating, girlfriend/boyfriend, and marriage). It is the most prevalent form of gender-based violence while having the lowest report rate.
Domestic violence is condoned in most communities in Ethiopia; it’s rarely considered a form of violence. Individuals rarely believe a crime can happen within a relationship or marriage, viewing it as an internal problem or a tiff between individuals. The community judges the man and woman for not being stable or for flaws and traits they see as causing the disturbance between the couple. But the responsibility for the abuse the woman is receiving often falls back on her, with thoughts such as “she must have done something” or “she should just have kept quiet”. This propagates self-blaming, feelings of shame, and fear of speaking out, often trapping the woman in an abusive relationship.
Technology and smartphones have created a new means of controlling and blackmailing women through non-consensual image sharing. Some women in relationships often share private images or videos with their significant other. In other cases, they are pressured to do so, and sometimes images and videos could be taken in compromising situations without their consent or knowledge. During or after a relationship, those images are used to threaten and harm their partner for various reasons (fear of breaking up, jealousy, embarrassment, revenge, etc.).
The fear of having something personal and embarrassing—or even taboo—released on the internet for all to see is usually enough for women to stay or submit to the demands of their abuser. The backlash they expect to receive from the community, combined with the extreme distress and betrayal, have caused many to commit suicide in our country. It is for this reason that the United States enacted Coco’s Law in 2020, making it illegal to share images or videos without consent. Depending on your intent in sharing the images, you can face a maximum prison sentence of up to seven years. The Ethiopian government should also create a similar legal framework in accordance with the constitution to protect women and discourage this terrible practice.
It is crucial for policy and governance mechanisms to keep pace with society’s advancement. The dangers of the digital world need to be assessed thoroughly and strategies shaped for implementation accordingly. The absence of any policy directive, law, or regulation creates a limitation for the creation or strengthening of institutions.
The creation of laws and policies would serve as a foundation that helps navigate the digital space and serve as a blueprint for women’s institutions to fight against these issues. A panel of law experts, academics, and women needs to come together to analyze and design an effective framework. The reform or development of regulation will portray that the government not only acknowledges the dangers of the internet but is actively working to create a harmonious society.
Another approach that works well with creating a legal framework is to undertake mass education campaigns targeted at women. We have seen such campaigns before to promote safe driving and HIV/AIDS awareness. The same digital tools used to victimize women can be utilized to combat these negative phenomena by spreading helpful information online and through text messages. Several approaches can be used, such as airing awareness commercials surrounding cybercrimes via TV, radio, and social media.
The Ministry of Women can create modules and light training materials that urge caution when using the internet and distribute them remotely. It can create content about how to identify basic scams and human traffickers. Instructions could be developed with consultations from experts on how to get help or what to do if one is being stalked or bullied online. It can create an online platform where victims can exchange their experiences and give voice to the voiceless.
As a long-term strategy, ethics and safety when online could be incorporated into high school curricula, whether as social studies or civics courses for students. The issue demands attention sooner rather than later.
Contributed by Dawie Tola