addis ababa women

#EYD2015: Empowering Women in Addis Ababa

Ten days, five countries, three continents. If the challenge behind my #EYD2015 trip sounds crazy on paper, actually doing it felt completely insane.

I spent seventy five hours of it in the air. That’s more than three whole days of trying to sleep with my head wedged between my knees and feeling my ears pop with every takeoff (all sixteen of them).

But no amount of jet lag, sleep deprivation or rubbery airplane food can cast a shadow on the beautiful memories I made. The people, the places, the projects… it’s been an eye-opening adventure. If you don’t know what the journey is all about, check out this post first. If you do, let’s talk about my first stop – Ethiopia.

addis ababa group shot

Our start was somewhat disastrous. Our backpacks, full of chargers and spare batteries and malaria pills and clean socks, got lost. Apparently they were already waiting in Tanzania – our next stop – but no one was quite sure. Luckily the rush of excitement, hot air and friendly faces with stunning high cheekbones was so overwhelming that we took it in stride and just laughed it off.

When I say we, I mean myself and Tess. Tess is a camerawoman from 1Camera who joined me for the first half of the trip before being replaced by her colleague Mirjam, likely haunted by my incessant puns and please-just-one-more-photo-for-Instagram demands. Before you ask, yes, she was always meant to leave halfway through. I’m not that bad, really!

Ethiopia is one of those counties that really pull you in, but because we only had one full day to take it all in we knew we’d need some help. It came in the form of Solomon – the EU delegation’s press and information officer with a permanent smile on his face who agreed to show us around.

The two EU-funded projects on our itinerary were a legal advice centre for abused women supported by Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) and a temporary shelter run by Addis Ababa Women’s Association (AAWA). In other words, it was the perfect way to kick off the journey for Girl vs Globe!

addis ababa

Our drive toward the legal advice centre started on the embassy-lined Cape Verde Street, which made our descent toward the more deprived area of town all the more interesting. The contrast between shopping malls interspersed with large hotels and bright-hued metal shacks was staggering.

The legal advice centre was an unassuming grey four-storey building. The downstairs area was filled with young men playing table football, upstairs a young female lawyer was running a seminar on how abused women can best defend themselves in court. Mothers with little babies on their shoulders watched on silently – in Ethiopia’s patriarchal society it’s still difficult to publicly discuss the violence they’ve endured.

The temporary shelter was a cluster of small buildings, tucked away in a side street of Addis Ketema – one of the Ethiopian capital’s ten sub-cities – a short ride away. We drove around the Addis Mercato, which is the largest open air marketplace in the whole of Africa.

The carts were heavy with local produce, the smell of roasted coffee hovering in the air, the day bright. Despite being plagued by a series of famines in the 1980s, Ethiopia now has the largest economy in East Africa and Central Africa and it really shows in some places.

addis ababa womens association

Although things are looking up, more than half the population of Addis Ababa still lives in slums. Such poverty is particularly dangerous for women whose low socioeconomic status hinders their equal participation in society. There has been significant progress over the past decade, but Ethiopian women are still widely seen as inferior to men.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in domestic female abuse statistics. In a 2005 World Health Organisation study, 59% of women reported being physically forced by their partner to have sex against their will. But according to article 53 of the 2000 Revised Family Code of Ethiopia “spouses shall have with one another the sexual relations normal in marriage unless these relations involve a risk of seriously prejudicing their health”.

This little provision effectively renders marital rape an unenforceable crime, which is where the legal advice centre and women’s shelter come in. Thanks to these projects implemented by the AAWA and primarily funded by the EU (to the tune of €200,000), abused women are not only offered protection but also empowerment and justice.

Through their advocacy efforts, the city’s women affairs committee has opened a gender desk which identifies such policy gaps. More than 59 cases of gender-based violence have already been reported to it with 29 victims under legal follow-up and 4 perpetrators convicted. I know these aren’t huge numbers, but they are encouraging.

addis ababa little girl

In light of these issues I was curious to learn about the country’s family values and Solomon carefully guided me through his own just as he had done with the settlements’ winding streets.

“My father always told me: ‘Your mother is the pillar of our family’,” he said. “Do you have another one? No? So act that way.” Solomon clearly sees his wife in much the same light, because when I asked about her his answer was disarming. “My wife is the most brilliant woman in this city,” he said with unwavering certainty.

Together they have two daughters – the younger is six, the old eight years old. Some Ethiopians would consider not having a son a horrible curse, but he thinks it’s a blessing and hopes they will become as empowered and independent as their university-educated mother.

When I asked what his daughters want to be when they grow up, he told me his little one wants to be a pilot while his older girl has her heart set on passing the bar. Clearly his wish is coming true already.

addis ababa children

“I love showing people Ethiopia and all it stands for,” Solomon told me as we hunched over our huge plate covered in injera. He’d invited Tess and I to lunch because, as he said, it was his responsibility to make sure his guests saw the country for what it truly is – a welcoming place with big room for improvement but even greater potential.

The only time Solomon’s smile faded during the entire day was when I asked him if he ever found it difficult getting that point across. “Sometimes it can be hard. If you come here, you need to acknowledge that although the country has some problems we are your equals. We Ethiopians are a proud people and if you look down on us, we will pay no attention to you.”

In my eyes, he perfectly summed up the “white man’s burden” – an approach that some people still sadly take when visiting less developed countries. Sure, Ethiopia has its issues. It would be wonderful to see it thrive in the same way some Western nations do.

But its people are strong, proud, warm and for the most part hard-working. They invest a lot of energy into setting the country on the right path and seeing it thrive. Luckily my short trip filled me with hope that Ethiopia is on an upward trajectory. New hotels and office blocks are being built all over Addis Ababa, while a new tram system had just been opened two weeks before my arrival.

It’s not just the economic situation that is improving – the role of women in society is too. Although still low in rural areas, primary school enrolment among Ethiopian girls is up from 41% in 2000 to more than 80% today. Little girls dream of becoming pilots and lawyers. Women are suing their abusers and getting justice.

addis ababa tram

So instead of judging Ethiopia for its issues or feeling like we are its only hope, let’s focus on how we can help by empowering those who already live there. For a long time I couldn’t quite put a finger on what made my short stay so special, but I’ve finally figured it out.

It was the smiles. Solomon’s, the women’s, the children’s. They had a special quality about them, a resilience I hadn’t witnessed before. And around the corner of the mouth they curved toward the sun. Things are getting better and all is needed is a little external support – the locals will do the rest themselves.

Have you ever been to Ethiopia? What did you think of it? What do you think about these female empowerment programmes and do you have any ideas on how to make them more effective?