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The Yellow Movement: Challenging Gender Inequality

Written by Lynsey Robinson

February 8, 2017

“Gender matters everywhere in the world … we should begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves” (Adichie, We Should All be Feminists, p.25)

Higher Education and Gender in Ethiopia

Last year I spent some time at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia conducting research for my master’s dissertation in Education, Gender and International Development at UCL-IOE. I wanted to find out about the experiences of young women at university enrolled in undergraduate degrees. I decided to do my research on this topic after having worked as a teacher in Addis Ababa between 2013 and 2014. During this period, I had some interesting conversations with the other teachers, as well as friends, who had studied in Ethiopian universities.

As is the case in many parts of the world, many of the women I met were first-generation students, and I wanted to know what the experience of going to university is like and the impact this has on society as access to higher education widens (undergraduate enrolment (government and private) rose from 447,693 in 2010/11, to 593,571 in 2013/14.). However, despite the overall increase in the number of students, the percentage of young women in higher education is still low: 32% in 2015. Recent studies undertaken in Ethiopian universities have also found that there is a high rate of gender based violence against women, as well as a high number of young women dropping out of their studies before completion. It is of course important to remember that this is not something unique to the region.

For example, in the UK a 2010 online survey of women students (by the National Union of Students) found that 68% of respondents had been subject to verbal or physical sexual harassment on campus and 14% had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault. As can be seen from this, young women face a variety of barriers to their education, and simply adding more young women into the system does not automatically bring about gender equality.

Although this paints a very negative picture, I found some glimmers of hope during my time at Addis Ababa University.

The Yellow Movement

Whilst conducting my research I got to know some of the members of the university’s feminist group: The Yellow Movement. The group was co-founded in 2011 by a faculty member in the law department, Blen Sahilu, and law students Hilina Berhanu and Aklile Solomon. The aim was to campaign for the better protection of women from gender based violence and to raise awareness about these issues. And this is exactly what happened in 2014 after the tragic death of 16 year old student, Hanna Lalanga. Returning home from school, Hanna was kidnapped and gang-raped, which led to her tragic death. The incident would have gone largely unnoticed were it not for the Yellow Movement, who through their social media and awareness raising activities demanding #JusticeforHanna, brought international media attention to the incident.

Today the movement continues to grow, working and campaigning for gender equality.

The group provides a space for the students to reflect on the many taken for granted ways that gender inequalities are reproduced at university, and in wider society. For the students I spoke to, one of the most pervasive outward manifestations of this was in the form of verbal abuse. On campus it was common for other students, normally young men, to make comments about the appearance of the young women. The students I spoke to did not expect ‘educated’ young men, at university, to do this sort of thing.

As the young women in the group reflected on this type of behavior they were more aware of the detrimental impact it had on their subjectivities and how constantly being commented on by young men on campus made them feel out of place in this environment – as if somehow did not have the right to be there, always having to check and monitor their actions, clothing and speech. Awareness of this type of behavior and the continued inequalities that manifest themselves in everyday behavior created a sense of solidarity between the young women and the drive to transform the culture of the university.

One of the ways the members challenge this type of behavior and other gender inequalities is through Table Day Activism. Each week during term time members of the group choose a topic for debate on a diverse range of issues; such as the expectations of society on women’s sexuality, gender roles, and violence against women. Fliers are prepared in advance and put up around the campus letting the other students and staff members know what is going to be debated. Then on the day of the debate, tables are set up around the campus for members of the movement to debate the topic with students and staff members. Through debate and dialogue, the young women open up a space for opinions to be expressed and challenged.

The students I spoke to told me that it was interesting for them to hear the views of others, regardless of how challenging and frustrating they were. This gave them the chance to question one another and ask why people believe what they do. This was also an important way for the members to let other students know that if any form of gender based violence, from staff members asking for sexual favours in return for better grades, to abusive and intimidating behavior by other students, happens to them they have somewhere to go. The Yellow Movement ‘has their back’, as one member told me. Action can and should be taken and the Yellow Movement are there to help make this happen.

Through collective action and group solidarity the young women in The Yellow Movement are helping to transform society.

Lynsey was an intern at LIDC in January 2017.

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