Hanna Lemma is a women’s rights advocate and feminist researcher from Ethiopia. She is also the founder and director of Addis Powerhouse, a young women-led feminist knowledge production platform that conducts gender research and works to ensure young women’s meaningful representation in Ethiopian politics and society. In the wake of civil war, Hanna is fighting hard to prevent progress on women’s rights from becoming a casualty.
Pushing forward: Countering anti-feminist backlash in Ethiopia
Paying the price
Gender-based violence in Ethiopia was already endemic before the outbreak of war in 2020. But the conflict has exacerbated the problem—and reduced the political will to address it.
“Women have paid the utmost price of the war,” says Hanna. Facing heightened gender-based and sexual violence, they’re also being deprived of crucial services—including reporting mechanisms and proper healthcare for survivors. Though more critical than ever, women’s rights have been deprioritized amidst the fighting.
Women also face exclusion from peace processes. “Instead of agents of change in reconciliation efforts, young women particularly [are] solely seen as victims of conflict,” Hanna says. Without avenues for engagement, women and women-led organizations end up unable to advocate for themselves.
In the midst of all this, global anti-feminist movements are taking their toll. Though Hanna points to digital platforms as a key mechanism for facilitating women’s rights advocacy work, access to such platforms also “heightens exposure to the global pushback on women’s rights.”
This kind of messaging is already threatening to derail progress made by Ethiopian feminists. “While more and more women have started speaking up for their rights using apps like Tiktok, more anti-women pages that promote backward gender roles and gender-based violence have also started to surface through such spaces,” Hanna explains. “Bashing feminism has become the norm.”
Live and learn
From an early age, Hanna saw something wrong with the way she was treated. “My activism was born out of the lack of power I felt I had as a young girl on the streets of Addis Ababa,” she says. “I always questioned why I was expected to normalize catcalling and other forms of gender-based violence.”
Discovering feminism as a teenager helped her to understand the harmful systems she had already encountered: “I primarly used [feminism] to dissect and understand the patriarchal society I was born and raised in.”
It also gave her an outlet and, eventually, a sense of empowerment: “Feminist activism allowed me to cope through art and writing, and a newly found sisterhood in my community,” she says. “[It] transformed how I saw power and where I found myself in the ladder of influence.”
For Hanna, activism starts with awareness—and that means identifying the endemic sexism that serves to dehumanize women and girls on a daily basis. “We have only recognized a very small portion of our culture as ‘harmful’ so far,” she says, and that leads to the continued reinforcement of misogynistic values and traditions.
Hanna encourages aspiring activists “to read, to research, and to explore different topics—to garner a holistic understanding of the world we live in”. Apathy, she says, is our greatest enemy: we must fight to end the oppression of others just as we do our own.
She notes that activism looks different for different people. “I know that not all of us get the privilege to act visibly against inequality and violence, especially when the current social dynamic makes us dependent on those who have capacity to dominate and punish us,” she says. But there are always ways to act: “If you are one, you can start by listening to and supporting other women and amplifying their voices.”
“Dissecting culture and the ways it is used to oppress women is the start of a new reality,” Hanna says. “We should be able to examine our shared societal values and have conversations around them.” Only then, she emphasizes, can we begin to build a better world for everyone.
Beyond the limits
Hanna envisions a future “where we see and acknowledge the humanness in each other before anything”. Freed from gender-based violence, she sees a wealth of possibilities opening up for women and girls: “In such a world, so much of women’s lives would not be spent fearing the opposite sex, protecting ourselves, and advocating for our right to live freely. I can only imagine what we, as women, could do if gender-based violence wasn’t a constant threat to our lives.”