Time to Speak Up, Time for Change

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As most of you already know yesterday was the International Women’s Day, March 8. As an educated woman of the 21 century who has been fortunate enough to gain higher education and not get married at fifteen, I am supposed to say it’s a great day to celebrate womanhood, freedom, and choice. It’s a day I, along with all my friends, should feel proud.

Since morning I was getting a “Happy Women’s Day” wishes, little flower emoticons and all. One of them says, “Hope your day has sunshine and flowers and happy thoughts to fill the house. Happy Women’s Day.” Another one says, “Happy Women’s Day”. Oh, and the Facebook posts, which filled my timeline, until they got replaced with posts about the amazing victory of Barcelona. Well, basically what I was reading the whole day was `ሴት እህት ናት; እናት ናት; ሚስት ናት; ልጅ ናት መብቷን እናክብርላት!`. I can see my friends are making an effort in this atmosphere of volatile gender debates, but merely being politically correct without really realizing the relevance of the words. No, a woman is a human being, ሴት ሰው ናት! We have to respect the basic human rights of a woman because she is a human being, not because she is your sister, mother, wife or daughter.

I thought about what I should write for the day over and over again. On one hand I wanted it to be a memorial to Nuhamin, who was killed in a broad daylight by a man who apparently was in love with her and couldn’t take no for an answer. On the other hand, I wanted this day to be a day that empower us, focus on all the positive side, but I couldn’t come up with that either. So I kept quiet. Yes, A women’s right advocate keeping quiet on Women’s day. Take it as a protest, if you will.

Because for me it was not a happy Women’s Day. Unfortunately, at the moment, I don’t associate the word ‘happy’ with being a woman.

There is nothing happy about being told you’re dramatic whenever you raise an issue about women’s struggle.

There’s nothing happy about being lurked at, catcalled and harassed in the public modes of transport and on the road.

There’s nothing happy about walking alone at night, continuously turning behind, and check if some sex starved guy NIL following me.

There’s nothing happy about being a woman because just few days ago, a girl lost her life by a man who couldn’t take no for an answer.

Yes, Nuhamin, a 17-year-old girl, and a 10th-grade student was killed. It’s not the first time it has happened, and sadly it won’t be the last. I have questions. Why did this happen? Why is the number of male violence victims increasing? Though there might be many reasons behind that, I would like to focus on Victim blaming, which leads to keeping quiet and then to the unexpected horror of being killed. When romance turns to stalking (does stalking even have an Amharic translation?), When it becomes harassment. Being inundated, bombarded with unwanted contact, being followed around – this is not romance. It’s a crime. In Nuhamin’s case, her attacker has been troubling her for a year. Which made him her stalker. Stalkers, like all perpetrators, give themselves all sorts of excuse for their behavior. They might be convinced that the woman in question loves them and that they’re in a relationship. They may believe that she deserves it, or they may have the conviction that they are behaving romantically to bring a relationship back together. None of these reasons are true. There is nothing romantic, or mutual, or deserving about a campaign of harassment. It’s frightening and upsetting, and it all too often leads to violence, and in this case it did.

Most Ethiopian men often find it difficult to accept rejection from women. That is because of our cultural and religious mentality that subordinate women and inflate manhood. Since Childhood men are taught to be more violent while girls are taught to be nurturing and loving. Instead of telling men not to rape or assault, the society tells women to be more careful. Men grow up witnessing that women can rarely say no to men, especially in a romantic pursuit; even if they say no, that eventually can be translated into a yes; It is taken as a natural phenomenon, when the women of their dreams comes; they ask her out, if she says ‘no,’ it turns start stalking her persistently until she says ‘yes’; and if she remains unwavering, some men turn to violence as a solution so that she forcedly changes her mind.

Few years ago I had some experience of stalking. It wasn’t a really serious case, but it happened. The target was someone in my family and it involved phone calls at all hours. Nothing else, it wasn’t on the same scale as many cases. It was just phone calls, breathing down the phone, night and day. I remember how frightened I was. That someone had this power to scare us. I know what his so-called justification was, I won’t share it here. It was no justification at all. Not for the fear, and for the fact I have never, ever forgotten it. No justification for that whenever a story like this comes up, or even, once, when some friends were cracking loads of jokes about stalking, I remember that fear. That fear comes back.

The biggest problem out of all is often the target might not tell about the situation to people and as for help, either we think it’s not harmful or we know even if we tell no solution will be given. Which increases the risk of the occurrence of an assault that could have been prevented, had the victim, the people around her, and the police acted proactively at the early stage of the stalking.

Stalking isn’t the only thing we women keep quiet about, many of us don’t report what we face with regularity. Shame, frustration, his word against mine, we just want the strength to just move on. Why bother coming forward if you think you will just be ignored, or treated with contempt? The silence is not just women’s, it is also forced upon us, by a society that doesn’t want to acknowledge abuse and harassment and its aftermath. Silence smothers suffering.

Silence, keeping quite… seems I have a long story with it, like most girls, who kept quite when they experienced sexist remarks or sexual assaults. Yes, I have kept quiet for most of my life.

When I was eight and a neighbor who was around 18 at that time tried to rape me, I kept quiet.

When I was 12 or 13 and a man told me that I should wear a bra, I kept quiet.

Anytime men went beyond catcalls since I was a little girl, I kept quiet.

When men in a taxi brushed their hands against my breasts or pinch me while I’m trying to get in the taxi, I kept quiet.

When a group of boys popped out of the dark and scared the hell out of me, while I was going home because they just felt like it, I kept quiet.

When my teacher on campus asked me to kiss him so that I can take a test I missed because I was sick, I kept quiet.

When a guy pushed me to oncoming cars while I was crossing the street because he thought it was funny, I kept quiet.

 

There is no “typical” response when these things happen. I felt a number of different emotions after every experience. A period of numbness, disbelief, shaking and just feeling completely overwhelmed. I was also angry. At first I was angry at myself for my “bad” choices. Why didn’t I go home before it got dark? Why was I alone? Why did I wear a short dress? Why didn’t I choose another safe route? I blamed myself and the situations when the only one to blame was the perpetrator.

Details of my experiences might be too much, but perhaps they allow a glimpse into sexual assault and why we don’t see a parade of women on the news telling of sexual aggression and violation. This is the world women face daily.

We reach out to our mothers, girlfriends, and good men, to commiserate. We warn our friends, colleagues even strangers in a taxi. We try to be more careful, resenting the need to be more careful.

Embarrassment, fear, shame … these are only a few of the upsetting emotions people may feel after they’ve been sexually harassed. Harassment can be hard to talk about. In fact, that’s why many victims don’t. They remain quiet, hoping that the situation will blow over. The problem is, harassers who get away with inappropriate behavior are likely to harass again. If the perpetrator doesn’t come after you, he might target someone else. But remember: everyone deserves to feel safe.

I was skeptical about sharing my experience. What will be the reaction I’m going to get? Will I be victimized? Made fun of? Be shamed? But I asked myself why, why do I have to be the one who has to be ashamed for another person’s wrong doing? The reaction from people should be to empathize. I personally, faced the truth of what had been done to me and got the help I needed to go on to live a healthy, normal existence. In doing so, I learned that it is common for society to turn on the victims and believe the perpetrator rather than the victim.

So I ask you, were you and/or being abused, assaulted or stalked? Did you speak your truth, and no one believed you? Did you speak your truth and experience the pain of even one person doubting you? If you went through this and someone, anyone, didn’t believe you, know that I do. I believe you. I stand with you, and for you, in the small way I can.

Speaking the truth takes incredible courage and strength. My story can be your story. If you have been abused, assaulted, or stalked or is currently a victim of all this and have not yet spoken out, I urge you to reach toward a safe person and speak your truth.

Every person – women and men– can play a part in helping drive better outcomes for women. Through meaningful celebration and targeted bold action, we can all be responsive and responsible leaders in creating a more gender inclusive world.

Start speaking up today and make a new ending.

 

 

 

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