International Women's Day has been observed in most countries of the world in celebration of women on March 8. Stories were shared on social media, and heartfelt messages were forwarded, while others mockingly asked why there is no such thing as Men's Day. But the day quickly elapsed, as will the current month, and not much will have changed by the time the next women's day comes a year later.
A woman's path is harder than it should be. It is a path that is lined with difficulties, handed down by respective communities and cultures. Women bear the cost for others to move forward, usually at the expense of themselves.
Many believe that educated Ethiopian women do not have to deal with such obstacles. They are empowered, we are told. The truth, however, is that people would not openly shun the idea of sending girls to school and enabling them to get an education. But creating a conducive environment that genuinely elevates the status of women in society will take a lot more than gender quota systems in the labour force.
Higher education can serve as a great example of how the system has repeatedly failed Ethiopian women. Although there are over 40 universities across the country, none of them has a woman president. Moreover, most of the other leadership positions are dominated by men, betraying a deeply rooted patriarchal system that can affect women who attend higher education.
Such bottlenecks are rarely addressed, mainly because many women remain silent on the matter for the sake of not drawing attention to themselves. Past experiences of being vocal are deterrents.
A friend of mine, who works as a lecturer at Addis Abeba University (AAU), once shared with me the experiences of a female student that reported a classmate for harassment. Fearing for her safety, she reported him and he was suspended. But her classmates would taunt and blame her for the student's suspension until she became frustrated enough to plead with the heads of the Gender Office of the University for her harasser to return to class.
At the same University, I have a friend that filed a legal suit against a man for harassment and gained traction on local media outlets. As we sat drinking tea and talking, she mentioned points that most media outlets have not dared to talk about. She told me of her frustration with the lack of interest shown by some officials at higher education institutions for such incidents.
"It's not over," she told me when I asked her how it feels now that the case has finally been settled. She proceeded to tell me that even though there was a disciplinary action taken against her alleged attacker, "none had stuck."
She was determined, despite the attacks on her character and professionalism. Her strength inspired me and left me wondering about all the things she could have achieved with the time and energy she spent trying to right a wrong, a wrong that is a mere function of the lack of common sense.
Imagine who she, and many like her, could have become?
Character assassination and victim blaming are common. The fact that there are too many men in powerful positions in universities has created vulnerabilities for women. I remember, in my years of study at the University, an allegation of how teachers take advantage of women in exchange for better grades.
There is some solace to be found in that both the University and the Ministry of Education (MoE) are putting effort into involving women in positions of leadership. This is with the hope that a more conducive environment for women is created. As a community, we have not done enough to create a social milieu that is ready for the opinions of women. An educated woman in Ethiopia is continuously fighting for her rights at home and in public. Girls are raised to bear and hide shame while boys are raised to conquer in honour. We were promised that being educated and being financially capable would earn us a space in society, but it is much more complicated than that.
Getting the attention of society requires being vocal, and that path could be a hard and lonely one. Many may find the idea of an opinionated young girl to be cute, as she yields no real power in her life, but a woman with a voice is dangerous to the patriarchal social system. She rejects norms and the status quo. She will want fairness, requiring more than token celebrations and reserved advocacy.
Let us have more conversations and help one another to create a world where there is equality. I am glad to see that more men in my circle of friends are becoming more conscious of their privilege and outspoken at times on gender issues. This is the light at the end of the dark tunnel. This will help us celebrate women before, after and on March 8.
Hanna Haile (Hannahaile212@gmail.com) Is an Ethiopian Writer, Researcher and Social Worker Who Uses Her Writing to Promote Social and Gender Equality, Identity and Women's Rights. She Is One of the Organisers of Poetic Saturday At Fendika Cultural Centre Where She Performs Spoken Word Poetry Every First Saturday of the Month.