Six problematic ways Ethiopian society teaches women to protect themselves and stay safe

7 min readDec 7, 2021


By Zanta Messele

During these 16 days of activism, we have to remember that the structures that maintain patriarchy in a country like Ethiopia cannot be dismantled in 16 years, let alone 16 days. I grew up learning to accommodate the male gaze, ego and desires by protecting myself against them. This needs to change but learning everything again is not easy. For me, the 16 days of activism against Violence Against Women reminds me that we have to do something no matter how small and no matter how long it takes to see change. This blog is my small step towards that change.

Women have suffered different forms of sexual assault and harassment for generations. Women have suffered because of the normalising or trivialising of sexual assault and abuse, with men saying that it was not their fault and that the woman (girl) had initiated it by smiling at them, wearing provocative clothes or some such action. In Ethiopia, a man would even get bailed out of jail if he said he assaulted or even raped a woman because he “loved” her and was willing to marry her. He may even be admired for his bravery! Although the situation has improved, there are areas in Ethiopia where such practices are still found.

Women are victims of sexual harassment precisely because they are more vulnerable than men. They lack power or have been socialised to suffer in silence. They are taught to endure the catcalls, the stares, touching, shaming, being photographed, ogling, groping, wolf-whistlings, and stalking, because that is just “how men are” and “they can’t help themselves”. Therefore women just have to “deal” with it. And if something happens to a woman, she is blamed for having “tempted” the men, making whatever happened her own fault. This behaviour has led women to blame themselves and keep quiet for generations.

According to this line of argument, since men can’t stop themselves from harming women, from the time they are little girls, women are taught to take protective measures. Here are some of the problematic ways women have been taught to stay safe and protect themselves from sexual harassment.

1. Be polite to men
Don’t seem too friendly with men. There are a lot of do’s and don’ts that accompany womanhood, with society trying to police the way women communicate, act, sit, talk, and basically, exist. A lot of these stipulations have been dressed up as social etiquette rules that are disproportionately targeted at controlling women’s behaviour. Being polite is about manners, not a means to protect yourself from gender-based violence or harassment. Social etiquette applies to everyone. Women don’t have to be “decent” in order to be protected.

2. Never be alone with a man
Most women who have been sexually assaulted were assaulted by someone they know and trust, making it hard for them to trust anyone. When we consider that 81% of women have been sexually harassed, it’s easy to understand this lack of trust. Women have had to learn to assume that all men have bad intentions as an act of self defence.

3. Don’t walk alone at night and always travel with a friend
Women are always taught not to walk alone at night in order to be safe from men. It is not that there is no truth in this advice, but as a woman I have a hard time accepting that I have to be paranoid every time the clock hits 6 pm and it starts to get dark. Women have to survey every street and be very aware of every person in their vicinity. I have had many encounters where I panic at the sudden realisation of a new shadow in front of me at night only to find that it’s the shadow of a tree or the lamp-post above me. Women don’t have the luxury to relax until they reach their destination. They are taught from a young age to be very, very cautious, to avoid dark areas, and stick mainly to well-lit and busy areas, always walking with their keys in their hands in case they need to be used as a weapon.

4. Cover up (Watch your clothing)
The idea that clothing is related to assault is universal. Some men have this belief that women wear certain types of clothing for attention and know exactly what kind of attention they will receive by doing so. Therefore women in more revealing clothes shouldn’t have any negative feelings about the harassment they receive due to their clothing choices. Most people think women wearing clothes “a certain way” is an indication of consent and that they deserve to be objectified or harassed. It is a common argument that invariably boils down to the same nonsense: if an assault victim had worn different clothes, they wouldn’t have been victimised. It is a comforting myth (for men at least) to pretend that sexual assault is something that only happens to people who make bad choices.

5. Avoid the train, the bus, the stairs, elevators — basically, everything
If you are a woman who uses public transport, you are almost guaranteed to experience demeaning or threatening encounters. Women around the world are advised to avoid public transport because women who use public transport are often victims of a wide range of sexual offenses. Again, the onus is placed on women to protect themselves by avoiding public transportation instead of on men to not harass women using public transportation.

6. Use men-approved rejection methods
For generations women have used the “I have a boyfriend” or “I’m married” phrase in order to get men to leave them alone. They have had to give out fake telephone numbers because saying “No” will hurt men’s fragile egos and provoke them into physically hurting them. They have to wear fake engagement rings because it is an effective way to provide additional safety. Men respect women more when they are perceived as belonging to another man, and a fake wedding ring allows women to feel more confident and less prone to receive unwanted attention. Even if you repeatedly state that you are not interested, some people may not respect this declaration. But when you have a ring to show, you are far less likely to experience advances from others. For many women, wearing a fake wedding ring provides them with added assurance and sends a message to others that they should be left alone.

These six ways are a few of the many problematic pieces of advice our society has handed down to women for generations to protect themselves. This advice is not only problematic but also reminds women of their vulnerability, creates tensions that make their lives more difficult, and makes them hesitant to go out and chase their dreams. This advice, borne out of patriarchal notions of gender, not only reinforces negative social norms imposed on women, but it also hinders the lives of women and girls everywhere and widens the gender gap.

About the author

Zanta is a Data Entry and Administration Support Officer at Includovate. She is a 2020 graduate in management with a very high distinction grade. She is an active volunteer at Ethiopian Elders People’s Association (EEPA) starting from September 2017 and has done many remarkable jobs such as awareness creation, event organizing, handling inquiries of visitors and callers, doing research, writing reports and others.

She has worked as a sales and marketing officer at an advertising company during her summer break. She was responsible for making appointments, visiting clients, negotiating, paperwork and others and she managed to close some pretty good deals. She has taken training in Hotel Management and Journalism for 12 weeks each.

Includovate is a feminist research incubator that “walks the talk”. Includovate is an Australian social enterprise consisting of a consulting firm and research incubator that designs solutions for gender equality and social inclusion. Its mission is to incubate transformative and inclusive solutions for measuring, studying, and changing discriminatory norms that lead to poverty, inequality, and injustice. To know more about us at Includovate, follow our social media: @includovate, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram.


Sexual Harassment On The Job: What It Is & How To Stop It (4th Ed.), by William Petrocelli, Barbara Kate Repa.
Etiquette Has Always Been Used to Control Women By Rajvi Desai.
Why dress codes can’t stop sexual assault By Mikki Kendall
10 safety benefits of wearing fake wedding rings by Ralph Ede
Sexual crime and harassment on public transportation: A study by A. Weinstein Agrawal, PhD A.Loukaitou-Sideris PhD




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