Redefining the Role of Ethiopian Women: Intergenerational Experiences in the Ethiopian Women’s Movements

The AWiB monthly lead and moderator, Sewit Haileselasie, opened the session by welcoming participants, thanking AWIB partners and the work of AWIB team. She further highlighted the Women of Excellence 2017 and their stories, featured on the AWiB website, informing the audience tickets sales have started for the Galla dinner that celebrates and appreciates these extraordinary women on Sunday October 29th, 2017 at the Sheraton Addis.

Members were then given the stage to introduce their businesses or say few words about what they do or what they are up to. In the September monthly event, Meron Nega introduced her startup business; Earth Soap, a handmade organic soap which is due to be launched on September 25th at the Medhanialem mall.

The moderator then gave a brief introduction of each of the speakers and then highlighted the concept and discussion point for the evenings’ theme. The first speaker, Aster Zaoude, started her opening remarks by paying tribute to those who inspired her life: her parents and two feminist activists, leaders of the Ethiopian women students’ movement in Europe in the 70s: Dr. Neguest Adane and Kongit  Kebede, who were both in prison with her and later murdered by the Derg regime. Aster recalls her generation of activist women as a generation of idealists who believed that they could change the world to better the lives of the poor and make gender equality a reality for Ethiopian women. She was attending Law school in France at the time, and she became an active member of the student movement when the hidden famine claimed thousands of lives.

“Land to the tiller” was the unifying banner under which all students were protesting against the feudal system and the unfair distribution of land and wealth in Ethiopia. The dominant ideology at the time was Marxism Leninism and class struggle was considered as the only avenue to liberate women and resolve issues of gender equality and women’s rights. The Ethiopian women’s students associations were established  in Europe and  America in the 70s as mass organizations within the larger Ethiopian student movement.  It was a movement within a movement.

After returning to Ethiopia in 1976, Aster worked briefly as a civil servant in charge of organizing women’s associations at kebele and municipal levels until the Derg regime cracked down on all opposition forces and brutally murdered its leaders, including many women.. Aster herself was jailed and tortured. She spent 4 years in prison with thousands of political prisoners. She believes that the new generation has a unique opportunity to learn from past struggles and shape its own vision. She encouraged young feminist students in the Yellow Movement and Setaweet to preserve their space for organizing young women and to continue the fight for gender equality and women’s rights as part of the global women’s movement. Aster retired from the United Nations after served for 30 years in senior positions including as UNDP’s Director of Gender in Development.

The second speaker, Mebrat Beyene, was a TPLF freedom fighter who joined the movement at 20 years old. Some of the TPLF agendas were land distribution, injustice and basic human right issues.  The young were dying and imprisoned in the fight. The Women’s movement was an extension of the TPLF movement. The Women Fighters Association was established with an agenda aligned with the movement but specifically addressing the needs of women such as reproductive health.

Hanna Birhanu, the co-founder of the yellow movement, highlights that the goal of the Yellow Movement is to challenge the status quo, rights advocacy and awareness creation trough various activism such as the table day. The Yellow Movement has the yearly valentine day campaign which raises money for female university students who need basic necessities such as sanitary pads. She says, “The movement by its nature is personal and political. It is still quite challenging to talk about feminism in Ethiopia particularly in the university. At the beginning, we were not accepted by the university.”  Yellow movement in collaboration with Setaweet also had a campaign on being consciously deifying the norm and our use language in gender called the Pagume movement for the last five days for the Ethiopian year.

The speakers highlighted that different generations have had different battles on different battle grounds or context, however it is debatable on whether the overall essence of women’s movement have similar agenda. The needs of Women’s Movement through generations seem different but their goal is similar. Movements create awareness of issues and make a difference in women lives where throughout generations, gender and politics are intertwined in the women’s movements.

In conclusion, the lessons that can be drawn from each generation of women’s movement incudes that women needed their agency, agenda, space, possibility, the right of raising their own issues. It shouldn’t be subdued under somebody else’s agenda as it was in the past. Ethiopian women need to set their own agenda. Furthermore, in any nation, women continue to struggle for gender equality and in many instances in Ethiopia; we are outraged when something atrocious happens, as we have in the past. These wakeup calls can be an incubation for women’s movement because the common agenda.

The speakers emphasized that it is important to look at the women movements contextually and reflect on the agenda of each generation raised and document it. There are many heroines that we can draw history and lessons from. AWIB is applauded for creating a stage to inspire, share and reflect on Intergenerational Experiences in the Ethiopian Women’s Movements. At the same time, young Ethiopian women in the women’s movement need to connect with counterparts all over the world and create a strong network.

While the speakers conquered indeed, there have been women movements in Ethiopia and over generations; women have shown involvement in changing policies, narratives, while fighting for their rights. These women have inspired their audience and the critical importance of being aware of our history, setting our own agenda and connecting internationally for the women’s movement to critically thrive in Ethiopia.

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