The Challenges Facing Modern Ethiopian Woman

By Seble Teweldebirhan

Addis Ababa, December 12, 2012 ( - As globalization reaches many urbanized areas of Ethiopia, the role of women in a society is redefining itself. For many educated and self-sustaining women, the current era is a transitional period. It is a time when they try to please their traditionally oriented parents, the society and their own definition of fitting into the society. As a result, women have to cover the roles of a primary caregiver to the family and at the same time work full time and fulfill responsibilities at work places.

In addition to serving all traditional roles, society also expects modern women to make a living of their own and become professionals of some sort. Women are encouraged to go to school and take their careers seriously, but at the same time fulfill all the responsibilities culture has placed for them. In some cases, they are appreciated for the confidence and assertiveness they possess but still has to obey traditional rules no matter how unjustified they might be.

In fact, such dual roles are not only limited to women in urbanized areas. Nowadays, rural women are making some difficult choices to be able to earn their own income and look after their families all at the same times. If one talks to most of the women who are leaving to the Middle Eastern countries, the choice is not really about their own life. Their stories are related to helping out their husbands, parents and children.

It is certainly good news to see society appreciating women for their financial and career achievements. In fact, for the most part, this attitude is an answer for several human rights violation on women. However, this article is about unchanged attitudes that are making the life of women even more difficult. This transitional period, which place women at two places at the same time, might need a serious look and revision by the society.

Aberash, 32, is Chief Accountant who works full time. She is married and has a three-year old son. “Whoever said globalization has simplified the life of women is terribly wrong,” she says. “I have to work full time and I have to take care of my family full time. You can imagine how hard that could be. My husband is pretty much like any other men in the country. He expects a cooked meal and a clean cloth and has no interest to contribute in the household. We share the expenses equally but I take care of the house all by myself,” she says.

Women like Aberash struggle to keep the balance between family and work and not to lose their focus in either one of them. In fact, many do not have the luxury of choosing one. “As a woman, I have several challenges at work. Especially when you have children, people mostly expect you to be distracted and fail at what you do,” said Aberash. “To be honest, sometimes I wish I could be a stay-home mother and look after my child. I know society would not respect that kind of life. The economy also wouldn’t let me do that. However, compared to the stress I live in, staying home would have been a pleasure,” she said.

Hanna, at the age of 35 has three children. Every other day, she wakes in the morning while still dark and makes sure all her family members including her husband has a proper breakfast. “I join my house maid at the kitchen very early. We cook breakfast and prepare lunch for the children. After I send my children to school and my husband to work, I start preparing to go to the office,” she said. She is a project manager at an NGO and has a lot of workload. “It is very stressful. I wish my husband share some of the household responsibilities. He has a lot more free time than myself,” she said.

Hanna once mentioned to her husband about sharing responsibilities in the household. He did not think she was serious and he laughed. “My own mother said it is a crazy idea to expect him to work on the household. If you force him to do some work at the house, he terribly worries that people will think he is not man enough. From his point of view that might make some sense. I think men are also a victim of the transition period we are currently living,” she said.

Women in this society are not only responsible for their own work and that of the household. Sustaining social life is another demanding task they have to bear on everyday bases. “I am expected to help the neighbors if there is mourning, wedding, or any other social gathering,” said Serkalem. She is executive secretary and her job requires her absolute focus. “I work the whole day. Mostly my boss is out of the country, which means I have serious responsibilities around the office. When I go home, I look after the children; make sure they have done their homework etc. When you add up other responsibilities like the social life, it is stressful,” she said.

“My husband participates in social life. However, all he has to do is just show up. He is not expected to stay long and people give him a lot of credit just because he sat for a few minutes. However, I am expected to work in the kitchen, and serve whatever has been prepared. After a long day at work and dealing with children, that is just too much to handle,” she said. “I know I could do the same as my husband. However, my neighbors will probably see it as disrespect. That is bad for social life”

“I tell women to be assertive and take control of their life on everyday bases,” said Seniet a lawyer and a trainer on women’s rights issues. “I talk about all the theories, the constitutional rights, etc. However, when it comes to the reality, I realized long ago that I am preaching a rule that is difficult to implement on the ground. I myself have these issues in my family. I work full time and I take care of my family full time. My husband is a good man, but he is just not as sensitive,” she said.

Seniet believes that this contradiction is the reason for the growing number of divorces in the country, especially in the urban areas. “This is not the old day when you feel like you have to obey your husband because he is the bread winner and a security to the family. For most working women, that is not the case anymore. Therefore, at some point they start asking why they should bear all the responsibilities by themselves. As they get more financial independence, it will eventually give them emotional independence and realize that being without a husband is just not a scary thing anymore,” she says.

In the past Seniet handled many divorce cases, which she says are most related to miscommunication. “These days, women come to me and say I am tired of this marriage. They say they are finding no reasons to stay in the marriage since they are not getting enough support from their husbands. I always tell them to communicate their feelings and mostly they comeback with negative answers. Most men are just not ready to redefine gender roles and assist their wives. Therefore, families are breaking up and children are obviously suffering from this,” she said.

It is also common opinion that, the current approach of teaching women they have rights and they do not have to suffer if their marriage is not working is causing more trouble to families. “When I give trainings, men mostly ask me why we are trying to turn their wives against them. They claim that, as women realize their rights, they take it too far and become impossible to their husbands. I also have many opinions saying the approach should recognize culture, but trying to make women assertive and aware of their rights have a bad consequence on families. Whenever I hear that I say what is the alternative? Telling women, they should keep tolerating all the injustice? That is what tradition and elders are trying to do. However for me, that is just not an option anymore,” she said.

On her training sessions about women’s right and gender sensitivity, Seniet, says that there are men who justify their actions by referring to their own parents. “Men often tell me that their mothers tolerated all the injustice to keep their family together. They say ‘my father treated my mother a lot worse than I am treating my wife. However, she was patient because she didn’t want us to suffer’. Their claim simply is why today’s women cannot do that. Of course the claim is full of fallacy,” she says.

Yohannes, also a lawyer, says that most men in urbanized areas today seems to have difficulty realizing things have changed a lot. “There were times, not a long ago, when women scarify everything to stay in a marriage. This is also a current reality for many women in Ethiopia. However, when we talk about educated women, who are in a position to make choices, things are different. They would not appreciate being disrespected, expected to do everything in the household, etc. In addition, in urban communities today, divorce is gradually losing its scary faces and more women are considering it as an option,” he said. 

Yohannes also recognizes the suffering of men in these crises. “Today’s generation, for the most part, is raised by traditional families. Men are thought to be tough and never to take part in women’s role. I appreciate men who control their egos, take a proper care of their children, and help their wives. However, for the majority, that is just not an option yet. Obviously, this generation is a bridge between the past and the future. Therefore, there are prices we need to pay until we manage to have an attitude change. I would say the process for change has already started and that is a good sign. However, men, by trying to be a little more conscious and sensitive can fasten this process,” he said.


Seble Teweldebirhan

Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for She can be reached by sending email through this form.


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