What was your childhood and studies like?
I was born in northern Ethiopia, in a quite small village. We are a farming family so my mom is a homemaker and my dad is a farmer. The lifestyle there is very different from the city, especially when it comes to work. The burden is great even for men, but women are overburdened.
Listen to Zdenek Novák’s interview with an emancipated Ethiopian woman
I was born there, but later I went to Addis Ababa, the capital. I studied there from eighth to twelfth grade and then I went to university. Subsequently, I lectured at the university and after two years I received a scholarship to stay in Europe, in Belgium, at Hasselt University, where I studied biostatistics. Then I went back to the university and lectured again.
The sister got married at the age of five
And do you have any siblings – brothers or sisters?
There are nine children in total, I am the fifth in order. As the only girl, I made it somewhere higher. The two older sisters are farmers, married and have six children. They are often jealous of me and sometimes I am jealous of them because I don’t have children. So we have it the other way around. And then the younger sister, she is still studying.
Studying was difficult. They didn’t believe I could finish university and get a good position. Parents didn’t care. My older brother supported me, he is like my dad to me. When I was five years old, three people came to us who wanted me to marry them. It’s early to get married, but it’s common in our region, one of my sisters got married at the age of five and the other at the age of twelve.
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With a wedding, it’s kind of expected to come true, and this is really early. Is this really a wedding with a ceremony, or does the girl just make a promise and then get married?
Yes, there was a ceremony that follows a year after a girl makes her vows to her future husband. Then she lives in his family.
She can return to her family, but she is obliged to live in her husband’s family. Often, after being married like this, women consider their husband as a brother because they actually grow up with him. And it doesn’t just apply to girls. Boys get married at the age of 12 or 13, for example.
You said your brother supported you. How?
He was the first born, the oldest. And he tried to get my parents not to marry me. Dad totally gave it to him, although it was more difficult for mom, she wanted it to be according to traditions.
And my brother took me to Addis Ababa when I was about to get married again, I was 13 or 14 years old and he already lived in the capital. He pushed me to take my high school exams there, so he helped me escape. And I started living there with him.
I started a business after school, but he was the one who made me go to university. Partly to prove to my family that if he had already pulled me out of the marriage, that I would make it to university and beyond. I was always interested in business, but I listened to him.
Work in the field and in the home
What did he save you from?
It was mainly about workload. Apart from plowing, we women and girls did everything at home. Together with the men and boys, we worked in the fields and at home we also had to take care of the household.
I had to feed and water the cattle and clean the house before I went to school. And after returning from school, often before I could eat, I went to the field. Therefore, with the other children, we often took school as free time, because we could just sit and learn and not have to work.
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So I didn’t want to miss classes, because if I missed them, I wouldn’t have a chance to catch up at home. As one of nine children, I had no privacy. It’s hard for women. I think I’m the only one from our area who graduated from university. The others finished around the tenth grade. They got married, moved in with their husband, and that was it.
So from what I found out, about half of the girls finish school here.
That probably fits. But it doesn’t end there. For example, when a woman is a manager, men have trouble listening to her. So not only do we have to do our job, but we also have to fight hard to be accepted at all.
So most women don’t want that kind of responsibility. This includes government support, which is called affirmative action (positive discrimination), which automatically adds points to women, for example during admissions procedures or interviews, so that they have a higher chance of passing. But on the other hand, men then disrespect us because they say that we are not there because we deserved it.
Maybe that’s why your brother wanted you to go to university rather than go into business?
I think I could do it, I really wanted to do it. But it was good in the end, I remember how proud my family was when I finished university in Europe. But at the same time it was too much for me because I wanted to do something else. So there was another pressure, while the only person who supported me the whole time was my brother.
I don’t go out after six
Now, leaving the family aside, what else do you have to deal with as a woman?
It is also relationships with men in general. I just can’t approach a man I’m interested in in Ethiopia. It’s a cultural thing. If I reach out to him and someone finds out, they will mock him. It is a disgrace to him. And when a woman does that, people then show – look, she’s the one who asked him out.
Next are the things teenage girls have to deal with. When you walk down the street, guys yell at you and quite commonly call: “Hey, come here, you’ll go out with me.” And if you refuse, they’ll just start threatening to do something to you, kill you.
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How do you react to that?
Most of the time you go on and pretend you don’t hear. And they will probably stop one day. But sometimes not, sometimes they get in your way. It’s very annoying. And above all, after six o’clock in the afternoon, when the sun sets, you don’t move outside. For example, in Addis Ababa, one man was so annoying and persistent that we had better move. Well, sometimes someone accepts the offer just to have peace of mind.
And that applies to the cities, not the countryside?
That’s only in cities. In the countryside, if you are not married by then, you might be kidnapped, and eventually, when the family feels embarrassed about the kidnapping, they agree to the wedding. But mostly the families solve it between themselves.
You mentioned that you lectured at the university. How many women were there in such a position, at least approximately?
I don’t know the exact number, but some time ago there was a movement at the university that demanded that there be at least one woman in every department. And then there were roughly 200 of us out of 1,500 teachers. In our department, there are two women out of sixteen lecturers.
Now you are working in a bad organization. This is a bit sector specific, but do you still encounter problems at work because you are a woman?
Here, too, sometimes mainly men do not want to accept an assignment from a woman. I usually respond to this by asking how the task is progressing, and if there is no progress, I give them another job and still require the original one.
Domestic rape and circumcision
In the Muslim world, I have experienced several times that it is often women who look at an independent and perhaps uncovered woman worse than men. Is something similar happening here?
I would say a little different. A lot of women often prefer to have a man next to them who takes more money. And at the same time, men tend to mind when their wife earns more than them.
And then there’s the matter of women not supporting each other very much. I’m trying to change that. For example, with a younger sister. Mom tried to marry her three times already. I told her twice not to do it and when she tried to do it a third time I told her I was going to call the police on her and she stopped.
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Was it because, for example, on my way to the countryside I saw that there was a campaign to stop child marriage? Does it work? And is it needed?
I think it is still needed in the countryside. In many local cultures, the tradition continues. And then there is the issue of circumcision. This is happening mainly in Ethiopian Somalia, Afar, Southern Om, finally the rape problem.
In the past, this happened mainly in the countryside. But in recent years, rape has also increased in cities, especially during the coronavirus. People stayed locked up at home and it started to be talked about, even publicly, about cases where girls were raped by their fathers, stepfathers, and uncles. This was done after several such victims committed suicide.
So now I’m trying to support other women to stand up to it, to talk about it, not to be alone, to believe in each other.
Zdeněk Novák, epo
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