Addis Fortune (Addis Ababa)

23 December 2012

Ethiopia: Academic Sexuality

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My memories of university life contain lots of adventures. They encompass both good and bad experiences. I would say, however, that it was the most apolitical phase of my life. I was somewhat dormant, in terms of analysing economic, social and political issues.

There is one front, however, that I remember with an abundance of pain, and that is the topic of sexuality. There is a rampant culture in Ethiopian universities to consider sex as an instrument of both subjugation and liberation, and women are the main actors in both cases.

Ethiopian universities are barely mediocre, in terms of intellectually approaching sexuality, and thus fail in ridding it from daily activities. They fail to sexually neutralise themselves. Hence, the issue of sexuality is, by and large, a dominant issue in the over 31 campuses of the nation.

Two separate cases that I heard last week made me remember the rather popular experience swarming the institutions.

One involves an instructor friend of mine who teaches development in one of the regional universities. His was a case where lazy female students used their sexuality as a tool to pass exams. These students, according to his account, use every opportunity to flirt with their teachers and take advantage of the ensuing relationships. For they know that they will not manage to pass exams on their own, unless they use their sexuality as leverage to make it happen.

Another case involves a Master's student at the oldest university in our nation, Addis Abeba University (AAU). This friend of mine could not manage to defend her thesis to her advisor, a professor, who would not deem it to be 'defendable'. His reason being, that she is not willing to share a bed with him. The professor, who is married with kids, asked my friend to go out with him or risk not graduating for as many years as he is around.

What seems puzzling, in both cases, is that there is no institutional procedure setup to handle them, within the universities. It would all be a little more comprehensible if the institutions were not educational, but, amazingly, this is all happening in a place where knowledge ought to take the lead.

From my years at university, as both an undergraduate and a graduate student, I remember sexuality as being a barely discussed issue. It was a taboo to openly talk about the thresholds of the relationship between professors and students. Professors are treated as rich landlords, whilst students are viewed, simply, as poor disciples.

The flow of information and instruction goes one way - from the professors to the students. Little goes the other way around. The self-righteousness of the professors is often passed on to young instructors, and adopted as an acceptable standard.

It is indeed saddening that the very places, where established social structures ought to be scrutinized under popular theories, are becoming rich only in mediocrity. It is also heartbreaking to see buildings that ought to contain academic excellence, ending up playing host to sexual harassment.

A large portion of the problem lays in the failure of the institutions to establish units to treat the complaints of both students and teachers properly. In the absence of such units, it is difficult to identify false allegations from truths. It is also impossible to handle the cases without impacting the normal teaching and learning environment.

Culture has its own role to play, however. It even goes as far as to reduce the effectiveness of education and impact the behaviours of people.

There is an established norm, within Ethiopian culture, that provides men with enough excuses and leverage to push for sexual relationships, and burdens women with a firm directive to surrender their will, with little bargaining. This very culture seems to have infiltrated through the walls of universities, until eventually it has overwhelmed the environment with such a sequence of horrendous happenings.

Of course, the case is no different within Ethiopian business circles. Stories of sexual harassment are rampant, as one goes up the ladder of Ethiopian business management.

Anecdotes have it that few women exist within the Ethiopian business circle, because the denomination for moving up, when it comes to women, is sleeping with their big bosses. Of course, this is not always the case, and there are certainly women who have earned their way to the top. Even for them, however, the challenge that their sexuality presents is at times overwhelming.

I strongly feel that it is time for the community of Ethiopian universities to say no to sexual harassment. They have to stand up against such cases of opportunistic testosterone and estrogen-fuelled activities. Too their 'no's' must be institutionalised.

It is through institutionalisation that a sustainable solution can be found, for a problem that is affecting the pillars of the Ethiopian economy, in a way that no other force currently is. It is indeed, truly, a matter of urgency!

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