ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The outfits hanging along the wall are simple: a long dress, a purple shawl, a checkered T-shirt. Most are also quite small because the girls who were raped while wearing them were all in their teens at the time, some as young as 12.
The exhibition “What She Wore” at the Addis Ababa Museum in Ethiopia’s capital is an attempt to tackle the taboo topic of rape and sexual harassment in this deeply traditional society and counter the widely held notion that a woman’s clothing invites assault.
The girls’ stories hang next to their empty clothes. Meklit, 16, a domestic worker, was raped while she was asleep. Rahel, 12, was raped while running an errand and then told by her uncle it was her fault. Bethlehem, 16, was raped at work by her boss’s brother and accused by her colleagues of seducing a family man.
Part of a 16-day campaign opposing violence against women in Ethiopia, the exhibit funded by U.N. Women and the Swedish Embassy comes as the country undergoes profound democratic reforms after decades of authoritarian rule — reforms that could have implications for gender equality.
The country’s new leader, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has made half of his cabinet female, brought in a female president and put a woman at the head of the Supreme Court for the first time. But many worry those changes will not sufficiently address the deep-seated bias against women — and subsequent harassment and violence — in the country, which is near the bottom of the U.N. rankings on gender equality in sub-Saharan Africa.
“We have very progressive laws for gender equality enshrined in the constitution,” said Ellen Alem, a gender and development specialist at UNICEF Ethiopia. “The problem isn’t there — these laws are workable, and they promote gender equality. The problem is in translating those to reality.”
The minister of state for women’s affairs acknowledged at the opening of the exhibit that problems persist.
“Violence against women and girls is preventing them from realizing their potential and contributing to the aspirations of the country,” said Simegn Wube, promising that the state would open more women’s shelters.
That potential is thwarted not only by violence but also by other insidious obstacles: cultural conceptions of gender, workplace discrimination, impediments to education and rampant harassment.
Sexism is embedded in the language here. In proverbs in Amharic, Ethiopia’s dominant language, women are cast as inferior and often compared to animals to be beaten or described as unintelligent. Some proverbs discourage women being without a man in public.
Inequality is also visible in the workplace. In Ethiopia, there are almost twice as many men working in a professional capacity or technical positions, while also men own five times the number of commercial establishments as women. The mean average monthly wage for men is 1 ½ times that of women.
In education, there has been halting progress. A sweeping government effort to ensure that girls go to school improved primary school enrollment, but those numbers drop precipitously for girls after fifth grade.
“The girls start having their period; they don’t feel safe going to school,” said Sehin Teferra, founder of the feminist Setaweet movement that organized the clothing exhibit. “It’s a big separator. A lot of schools in rural areas don’t have separate bathrooms for girls and boys, and the sexual harassment starts.”
Many parents fear that the walk to secondary school, often spaced farther apart than primary schools, can put girls at risk; abduction and forced marriage are still practiced in some regions. Girls are also kept at home to do chores, and their average age of marriage is between 16 and 17.
Despite these odds, the number of women that make it to university is rising, although they still make up only 30 percent of all students. And with growing numbers comes growing involvement: At Addis Ababa University, female students started the Yellow Movement that seeks to raise awareness about gender inequality as well as raise money for disadvantaged students.
Selome Sintayehu, a 22-year-old law student at the university, said the movement encourages dialogue among students and professors on gender issues. She recalled how in high school she was happy just to be in school and didn’t notice how unfair it all was.
“When I look back, the way the teachers treated us was different. The way we were told to act was also different,” she said. “My brother was told to be strong and to have opinions, but I’m told to keep my opinions to myself and not be opinionated, so that I wouldn’t intimidate men.”
But at the university level, harassment and violence are common. One study at another Ethiopian university found that 36 percent of female students had experienced sexual violence there, which contributes to higher dropout rates.
Wondimu Woldebirhanu, a senior gender expert in Addis Ababa University’s gender affairs department, said the department is working to promote gender equality and has dealt with cases of harassment against female students. More common, though, are professors who take advantage of female students who are struggling academically, he said. “This is common, but the problem is these types of issues don’t come to us.”
The female faculty members, who are outnumbered 7 to 1 by their male counterparts around the country, also face harassment in the workplace. Hilina Berhanu, a lecturer at the Addis Ababa University law school who co-founded the Yellow Movement when she was at the university as an undergraduate student, was groped by an administrator, resulting in lengthy hearings. He was punished only when she involved the minister of education, but the decision was later overturned.
Hilina said that women who try to make it in the “man’s world” are seen as fair game for harassment.
“People are, like, it’s fine, you can exist in public space, but whatever is going to happen to you, you chose — it is your responsibility,” she said.
There are hopes with the new political environment and a leadership committed to gender equality this will change, although at a recent meeting between the prime minister and the opposition parties, critics noted the room was dominated by older men.
These appointments “mean something, but it doesn’t mean everything. We still have a long way to go,” said Selome, the student. “Sexual harassment is still going on, and empowering women and appointing women may not be enough.”