Power of the Streets Episode 7: Student leader Ruth Yitbarek wants more Ethiopian women to understand their rights and speak up for themselves. She speaks about the Yellow Movement that continues to grow in Ethiopia’s universities and how it challenges abusive societal norms.
Read about the Yellow Movement here: http://www.aau.edu.et/the-yellow-movement/
Follow Ruth here: https://twitter.com/ruth_yitbarek
About Power of the Streets
Power of the Streets is a podcast about how we speak truth to power. In a series of intimate interviews, host Audrey Kawire Wabwire brings us the achievements and stories of the young people driving Africa’s human rights movement.
Audrey: This is Power of the Streets, a podcast series brought to you by Human Rights Watch about how we speak truth to power. I’m your host Audrey Kawire Wabwire based in Nairobi, Kenya.
In the series, we have been speaking to some of the people driving Africa’s #MeToo movement. But we are not done yet - in this episode we’re taking the conversation to Ethiopia.
Ruth: I think growing up, I've been really conscious about things around me. l’m politically very conscious. I think I can say I’ve been very conscious because l grew up in that kind of household. First year in the university doing my undergrad was my waking moment I can say that for sure.
Audrey: Ruth Yitbarek is a 24-year-old activist from Ethiopia. She is the campaign manager for The Yellow Movement, a university based student movement that addresses issues of gender based violence.
In this podcast, we are talking about the actual moment in time when someone decides to stand up against injustice, maybe through a movement or an event, maybe through a hashtag. You're an activist, Ruth, and you've been part of a major women's rights movement, the Yellow Movement. And you also work with UN Women and other platforms pushing for women's rights. What led you to activism?
Ruth: I grew up in a very feminist household to begin with, and also I went to all girls school. I've never been conscious about my gender or if I'm a woman or a man I've never been conscious. We call that privilege, right? When I joined university, I went to Mekelle University and I had a very bizarre moment. People actually are woman and man, for me that was a new thing. First our teacher gave us this assignment saying, describe your future husband, or describe your future wife. The way they described their future wife was really shocking for me. Gender was a very, very big thing in the university and people are discriminated against based on their gender. People come from very remote areas and I said, “You know, Ruth, you have been privileged enough, but it's time to say no!”
Audrey: So when you say you grew up in a feminist household, how was it exactly? How was your interaction with your siblings, your family? What exactly do you mean?
Ruth: I only have one sister and in our house my mom is a leader. My dad is, he is also an educated person. He has never made us aware of if we are a woman or if we are a man. He raised us, or like our family raised us, to be good humans, to focus on our education and what we want to become. You know in our house talking about periods was a very normal thing, talking about different things was very normal in our household. We have never had a gender role.
Audrey: Wow. That's really interesting. So maybe we talk about the Yellow Movement. It's a movement in Ethiopian universities. How did it start and how did you get to join it?
Ruth: The Yellow Movement started, I think, 10 years ago. It was started by a Law school teacher and her students. There was this case, [inaudible], her husband killed her in broad daylight, on a public street. She was shot and whenever this kind of thing happens there’s a public outrage. Everyone would be so angry and people start condemning them but then again it just seizes. We said, they said we're going to be small but very consistent voices. We are going to talk about gender inequality daily, we are going to talk about gender based violence daily. We might be small but we’re going to be consistent. That’s the main idea behind the Yellow Movement is that.
And how l joined it? One of the founders, the law teacher, was Blen Sahilu. She’s someone l really look up to, she is my role model, my mentor. She was on Twitter and she was active and there were, so Zone 9 were bloggers they were detained in Ethiopia. So Blen was really active. She used to talk about them, do campaigns for them on twitter and l was really interested. I was grade 12, I remember. So I was really, you know, I was really interested. One time l went to the court to see their case and l met Blen there. She invited me to a book club, it was the year l was to join University. I think it was around June and I joined the University in September.
So, I met Blen there. And l met the Yellow Movement team and they were like very young feminists and I was really impressed by how well they know what they want. I think we read the Alchemist and all of them, they all knew what they wanted. They were very articulated in the things that they want and I said oh my God. My friends are bright but they were different. First they were university students, yeah much older than me but l was really impressed by how well they talk and how well they expressed themselves. I said hmm this is interesting and l want to join.
Audrey: That's amazing. So this movement is trying to make sure that people hear about gender based violence every day and women's rights. So what exactly do you do?
Ruth: So in the Yellow Movement, one thing we do is table day. So we have table day, every week. We talk about different things, we raise different issues, we also have a book club. We also have yearly campaigns, we have monthly campaigns. We have this kind of things. We also have different programmes, mentorship programmes, we have scholarship programmes for women.
Audrey: Those programs seem super interesting and they're really going in the right direction. What impact has the movement had to date and where do you think it's going?
Ruth: I think one of the impacts that we have is whenever something happens, people say, where are the Yellow Movement? And I think our name is bigger than us. I've always said that.
Ruth: Yeah. It's bigger than us.
Audrey: How so?
Ruth: People forget that it’s a student movement. They forget that it's a student movement, they think it’s led by all these big older professionals who, you know all Yellow Movement members are volunteers. We are under the Addis Ababa University and others from Mekelle University. You know, they’re volunteers, they’re students, most of them are students and us who’ve finished school, we are mentors. The members, the volunteers are students, are law students, sociology students. They are very bright. They give everything that they have for the movement. I think by now most people know about the Yellow Movement.
If they are like conscious, if they know what’s going on in Addis and other parts of Ethiopia then they know about the Yellow Movement. I think, for example, our scholarship programme has made a very huge impact. One of the things we did was ‘know your rights’ we made sure that everyone who joins the university knows about the code of conduct and we revise the code of conduct - that's our university code of conduct. We have yearly activisms. So these are one of the things that have made a really huge impact.
Audrey: I was… I read a story on violence against women a while back. This article on Buzzfeed, I think a year ago, which was talking about the surviving R Kelly documentary. So, you know R Kelly the musician? He was abusing girls, Black girls in the US for many, many years. And the article was discussing how this documentary and the discussions around it was integral to the #MeToo discussions among, Ethiopian communities, both at home and in the diaspora. Tell me about this.
Ruth: So yeah, I think it happened a year or two years ago. There was this whole #MeToo movement that started in Ethiopia I think [inaudible] , they're the ones who started it. I think the, the conversation has been going on a lot, but I think the internet community was really surprised by the stories that came out. And for me, one of the best things that came out was, I don’t know if you know but, Kalela, Kalela the parents guide to protect their kids from gender based violence.
Audrey: So, is this government led or is it a group ?
Ruth: No, it’s just it was an individual initiative. Her name is Selam Mussie. She is a media and gender consultant, and she started it with her friends. I think a month or two ago, they published their first guide book for parents to protect their kids from gender based violence and sexual exploitation. That was one of the very good things that the #MeToo movement in Ethiopia brought. It also opened up a very good discussion for the online community to talk about gender based violence. To talk about you know, our abusers are not monsters, they are the people we interact with everyday. They are our families, they are our friends. So we know them, we have talked with them and that is a very good thing to know. It was an eye opener I think for most Ethiopian online community.
Audrey: So why do you think… You are saying there was a #MeToo movement already in Ethiopia. But this really brought the discussion online in a different way. Why do you think people were surprised?
Ruth: First we don’t talk about this. I don’t know in other cultures but in Ethiopia abuse is not something that you talk about on a daily basis. Either you get shamed by it or... but you don’t talk about it. And when you talk about it people take it as “why are you always crying?” “it happens to everyone”. Most of the abusers are someone that, you know, people that we know like family or even friends like uncles, so I think people were really surprised by that. I think the stories that came out were really overwhelming, they were really heartbreaking you know.
Audrey: Yeah, I remember reading those stories and it was heartbreaking and shocking at the same time. So speaking about the pandemic we are going through right now, it's really restricting us a lot and changing the way we are living. But as you said, there's also a conflict going on and we don't know what will happen. Especially in many regions in your country. We know that during conflict and when there's a disease outbreak, women are usually uniquely affected because we experience a whole other layer of violence. Are there any patterns of violence that you're witnessing in these times and how are you as activists organizing around this violence?
Ruth: The conflict that’s going on was really personal because l went to school Mekelle University, in Tigray region. It was personal for me and my family was there, you know, something very personal. There was also internet shut down so we didn’t know what was going on. But, you know, it’s expected whenever there’s a war, there’s going to be a rape. It’s never going to be separated. Yeah so It’s really heartbreaking, there are a lot of stories that are coming out. Lots of you know, people are complaining of rape, gender based violence, physical violence, emotional violence. It’s really heartbreaking what’s happening in Tigray. Lots of stories, people they don’t have access to banks, people they still don't have access to food and sanitation and sanitary products.
So like most Tigray activists are organizing, I don’t know if you have seen reports from UNHCR, WFP but women are facing lots of challenges in that area. So I think Tigray activists are organizing and calling out this and other activists in Ethiopia. And women activist are calling out this and organizing and collecting stuff like sanitary products to go to the affected region. But one of the main problems is most roads are closed and there is no way that things can, can go to the humanitarian aid can’t go. So yeah that's happening, and activists, particularly Tigray activists, are calling this out. You know asking the government, asking different women officials to talk about this, to condemn this, also to do something about it even.
Audrey: You know many young Africans are now using the internet as a tool to organize, and you know, to spread the message and just push the movement forward. But we are seeing many governments now shut down the internet whenever they feel like really. So how do these shutdowns affect the work of human rights? The work of activists?
Ruth: It really affects us you know there was no internet for a month in Tigray. So like people don’t have a source of information so they don’t know what’s going on. The government can do whatever it wants because there is no one watching. There’s no one calling things out. So it's like you know, they do this intentionally. Whenever they close the internet it’s because they have something to hide. So yeah, it really affects human rights work. It really affects activists' work. It makes you even frustrated. So many times you might say there are lot of misinformation, disinformation coming out of Facebook or in the internet but again it's really important to organise, it’s really important as a source of information. It’s also really important to let the world know what’s happening, to push the government, to ask the government why are they doing the things they are doing.
Audrey: As we're talking about information and how, you know, it really informs human rights work and pushes the movement forward. I know one of the things you care about a lot is data, statistics of reporting when it comes to gender based violence. This conversation is usually driven by people when they choose to speak up. Mainly when they feel safe to, but there's still a disadvantage of official data. Because if I speak up, for example, I can give my example in Kenya, sexual harassment, talking about that, you'll get lots of blowback online, offline. You don't get lots of support, you get a lot of blowback. But you're doing a lot of work around official data of gender based violence. Why do you think this is really important?
Ruth: One of the things that we really have to focus on as a movement in Ethiopia and also as a movement in Africa is informed advocacy and data-based advocacy. When we can do that, I think we can really, really influence policy makers. We can influence the government, we can influence real conversations. But people should know what's happening out there, people should know that we're just not talking, just because we're angry, just because we hate men. We're talking about things because they're happening out there and we're losing so many lives because of the things that are happening out there. So I think one of the things we'd really have to focus on is data and that data-based advocacy.
Audrey: Hm, hm. I know you monitor the media a lot and you've written about how the media shapes narratives on gender equality, violence against women. You made a presentation about this in 2019. Tell me about this discussion. What led you to do this?
Ruth: One of my friends pushed me to do this because media in Ethiopia is really sexist. To put it in a simple word, it’s sexist in two ways. One, the way it narrates. Women experts are only called whenever there’s a women’s issue. That is whenever there’s gender based violence issue whenever that is. But, there are women economists, there are women politicians working on different things. And gender is not something alienated, it’s weavered in so many policies, so many activities, so many conversations, political conversations. But whenever there’s an inflation it’s the guy with the suit that’s called to do a presentation about it, to talk about it. And whenever there's gender based violence it’s the woman that’s called. And we have to call this out, unless we are seeing things on a different lens, on a feminist lens we can never bring true change. Second is the way the woman is portrayed by Ethiopian media is the stereotypical woman. The one that cleans, the one that cooks, the one that takes care of the family but uh, yeah that's it. That's the only way the media, the music, sports racism, the movies, the ads that's the way portray it. And on the other hand, whenever there’s a gender based violence case, the media doesn’t give it enough attention.
Audrey: This is very heavy work that you're doing in a conservative society. How does your family, your friends, the people you interact with, how do they respond to you?
Ruth: Hmmm, I think my close, close friends are also very active and very vocal. So I can say that. Again my family are happy, they are supportive. Uh, you know people you interact with on occasional basis that have a negative comment about this kind of thing. But other than that, I choose my circle very wisely.
Audrey: So you know, is choosing your circle wisely a way to take care of yourself. What else do you do to just unwind and come out from the daily push of activism?
Ruth: Ah for example now, there are lots of things happening, but I'm not saying anything because I know some people are actually saying so many things about it. And because, I need to be okay. I need to be, the way I learned this, was in a very hard way. So I just want to keep on learning on how to say, Ruth take a break and you can do better next time. Every battle is not your battle. Every battle is not something you can win or fight. It's okay to take the time off and reflect on yourself and come back strong. And for me, choosing your circle is really important. You need to have a very strong support system to make you go for a while and to take care of yourself, to make you accountable even for the things that you do in a good way.
Audrey: So many young activists are working across the continent on the #MeToo movement. What message do you have to inspire them?
Ruth: Be conscious, question your privilege, forgive yourself.
Audrey: Why did you say question your privilege?
Ruth: I think, for example living in Ethiopia, I was born and raised in Addis Ababa. And I can never speak for the Oromo woman, like the Oromo woman. So I need to question my privilege and I can never say you know I am Ethiopian I'm not an Oromo, I'm an Ethiopian first, I don't see my ethnicity that much. That's privileged for me to say that. People are identified as Oromo first for so long. They can't say they are Ethiopian first and they've been identified as Gambella for so many years. They can't say I am Ethiopian first. So we have to question our privilege, if our concerns are coming from a point of privilege or are actual concerns and it's something that I'm learning recently.
Audrey: Uhm where can we find information on your work and the Yellow Movement online?
Ruth: So I think you can find Yellow Movement on Yellow Movement AU, on Facebook page, Yellow Movement, Twitter page. You can email us at the firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find us on Instagram. So these are the platforms you can find about Yellow Movement.
Audrey: You’ve been listening to Power of the Streets, a podcast series brought to you by Human Rights Watch. I’m Audrey Kawire Wabwire.
That’s the end of our show. Check out our show notes for more about Ruth and her work at the Yellow Movement.
In the next episode, we take the conversation to Mozambique.
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