Berliner Tageblatt - 'Normalised and invisible': online abuse targets Ethiopian women

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'Normalised and invisible': online abuse targets Ethiopian women
'Normalised and invisible': online abuse targets Ethiopian women / Photo: © AFP/File

'Normalised and invisible': online abuse targets Ethiopian women

Influential Ethiopian women's rights activist Betelehem Akalework says she has been forced to move home twice in two years after enduring a barrage of online abuse, death threats and physical harassment.

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She and her colleagues use social media to campaign for gender equality online by challenging gender norms and attitudes towards women in Ethiopia, Africa's second most populous nation.

They highlight highly sensitive issues in the largely conservative Christian country, including sexual harassment and rape as well as traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage.

But their work often comes at great cost.

"My colleagues and I have received threats online that have become increasingly violent, especially after we engaged in social media activism regarding women's rights," Betelehem told AFP.

"Death threats, sexual harassment, gang rape and threats of physical harm are commonplace."

Betelehem co-founded the Ethiopian Women Human Rights Defenders Network (EWHRDN) and an advocacy platform called Afro Feminism -- Seta Set Power (Women in Power) in 2021.

Since then, her social media and email accounts have been hacked and private information, including photos and her home address, stolen and shared online.

Her contact details were posted along with photos on a prostitution page on Telegram, she said, and many men contacted her seeking sexual favours.

"The revenge porn I was confronted with was so painful... I am a married woman with two children," she said, breaking down in tears.

"The attack caused unimaginable psychological damage to me and my family."

At an event in Addis Ababa, Betelehem said she was physically harassed by men who followed her to the toilet and threatened her life in a bid to silence her.

"I was forced to move my home twice within two years", in 2022 and again last year. "Two of my colleagues were also forced to move under similar threats."

- 'So pervasive' -

According to research published in May by a UK-based non-profit, online abuse against women in Ethiopia is forcing them to restrict their involvement in public life, both on and offline.

"Technology-facilitated gender-based violence has been so pervasive in Ethiopia for so long that it is underestimated," Felicity Mulford, head of research at the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), told AFP at the study's launch.

"It is normalised and invisible."

Women and girls in Ethiopia are subject to more online hate than men at almost 78 percent of the total, according to the CIR report.

Mulford said the research had also found that feminist activists were often accused of homosexuality, putting them at further risk.

Gay sex is illegal for men and women in Ethiopia and some offences can carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

"As we continued to advocate for gender equality, some people on social media began labelling us as lesbian LGBTQ advocates," Betelehem said.

"Especially after the recent campaign against the LGBTQ community in Ethiopia, people continued to send us death threats and threats of physical and sexual harm."

Last year, Addis Ababa authorities announced a crackdown on same-sex activity in hotels and bars and called on people to report what it called "abominable" acts to police.

At the time, LGBTQ activist group The House of Guramayle said there had been an escalation in attacks against people "based on their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity".

- 'My Whistle, My Voice' -

Lella Misikir, another influential feminist active on TikTok, told AFP she had faced an increase in online abuse including death threats after starting a campaign in November 2023 to help protect women.

The group Fishkaye Dimtse ("My Whistle, My Voice") advises women to keep a whistle with them and use it if they encounter violence.

The 31-year-old told AFP she was physically assaulted in an Addis Ababa cafe by men who threatened to kill her if she did not give up her advocacy.

Fearing for her life, Lella left social media for three months in 2023.

Activists like her "are forced to avoid public places and cover our faces with hats and masks," she said.

The activists complain of a lack of action by Ethiopian authorities.

Betelehem said she had approached the police to seek legal redress, armed with screenshots and online evidence of the threats she had received.

"Unfortunately, they said they have no mechanisms for identifying and prosecuting the perpetrators. Instead, they advised me to leave the digital space," she said.

The CIR said that with over 80 languages spoken in Ethiopia, social media companies lack the resources and staff to keep on top of abusive posts.

Kalikidan Tesfaye, a programme coordinator at EWHRDN, called for proper enforcement mechanisms to combat online attacks.

"Government and social media companies must act urgently on this," she told AFP.

C.Kovalenko--BTB