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Being a Woman

The Monitor (Addis Ababa)
November 9, 1999
By Ayenew Haileselassie

Addis Ababa - A timid, frightened girl, clad in tattered gabi-a warm cotton fabric- approached an open shop window slowly walking along the wall. Before she reached the area that was bright with the light that emanated from the shop, she stopped.

She stood silently looking at the ground, the lower half of her face covered with her gabi. "What do you want?" asked the shopkeeper, a young woman.

"(rFK")" she said, poor ("give me a place for the night, please?") "Where were you so far?" asked the shopkeeper sternly. "I was working as a house maid"

"Why did you leave?"

"Because they were all men." What she said was self-explanatory.

The stern shopkeeper understood what she meant, she stopped questioning the girl and turned her eyes away. I understood, too.

I looked at the girl's face, and saw that she had a black eye. Who punched her? why? A few years ago I was walking with a nurse, who was a colleague, when some poor girls with babies in their arms pestered us for money.

I made a stupid remark then. "They don't have a home, they don't have anything to eat, yet they have children!" The nurse looked at me reproachfully, and said, "But they are raped!" I felt ashamed of what I had said.

That made my first real lesson on the problem of women. Most men, and many women with comfortable lives, have some difficulty in understanding the special problems of poor women.

When we think of employed women, we think of them as only secretaries, or KG teachers, or telephone operators, or nurses. Outside of these activities, we treat them like all they could become was wives and daughters.

Or housemaids. Or prostitutes.

Born labourers. Born to suffer.

There is this story of an American farmer (half a century ago) who was lying on the front porch of his house, while his wife was digging in a plot of land. "Isn't that hard for your wife?" he was asked.

"Yep, but we work in shifts."

"Oh I see, when she gets tired, you take over."

"Naw," he said "when she gets tired out in the garden, she shifts to the house chores." I met an old man I know with a little girl I didn't know carrying a jerrican half her size and full of kerosene. "Who is she?" I asked.

"Some one gave her to me saying that she would make coffee." These two anecdotes are examples of people who remove the human factor from the life of the woman and regard her like a veritable workhorse. There still are many people who get married not because they want a good family life, but to acquire a slave that would do all the washing and cooking, and provide a legitimate sex.

Mexican peasants ride donkeys while their wives walk carrying whatever there is to carry. Asked why, one of them responded, "But senor my wife doesn't own a donkey." Marrying underage girls to older men is still widely practiced, and even has a legal bias in its favour.

This practice psychologically and physically devastates the girl, who, during sexual intercourse and childbirth suffers a fistula or succumbs to death. There have been reports of Afar girls who committed suicide revolting against a custom that forces them to marry old people against their will.

Rarely is a woman invited to help in decision making in family matters (forget the modern families). An old farmer said that as many children as he wanted to have, and as often, his wife would have to give birth to.

He simply could not support the idea of his wife hesitating on the matter. As in all other things businessmen are making plans to make money out of women's problems. In South Africa, where 1 in every 3 women statistically knows that someday, someone is going to rape her, insurance companies have recently come up with crazy plans whereby a woman could get money every time she is raped-if she is insured against it.

Nowadays women's affair is gaining better attention in our country. A recent newspaper headline said that 3,643 women in Addis Ababa have got some form of employment in an initiative that focused on women only.

Most of the vacancies today and almost all the good ones are open for women with similar qualifications. Most vacancy ads encourage women to apply.

The desire to make women involved in politics is even greater. The benefits of such actions need no telling.

Recently, though, some groups seem to be taking things a bit far, as in the case of Aberash, the girl who shot and killed the man who abducted her. This girl, who, the last time I heard about her was living in Addis claimed that she would be insecure as long as she lived in Ethiopia (in an interview with VOA), thus abusing the advantages that came out of her one misfortune to make a way out of Ethiopia.

Her claim was "confirmed" by the women lawyers who had stood for her during her trial. "What is now in fashion," said an American on the issue of women's rights in his country, "is a style of feminism that is almost ecological, where women are defended as if they were dumb animals." When we fight for women's rights let us identify the most important targets and let us be reasonable.

Let us keep our beautiful differences, too, together with our equality. A long time ago a deputy in the French parliament was making a speech on the improvement of the legal status of women.

"After all," he said, "there is very little difference between men and women!" The entire chamber of deputies rose and shouted in unison: "Vive la difference!"

Copyright (c) 1999 The Monitor - Addis Ababa. Distributed via Africa News Online ( For information about the content or for permission to redistribute, publish or use for broadcast, contact the publisher.

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