‘Normalised and Invisible’: Online Abuse Targets Ethiopian Women

Influential Ethiopian women’s rights activist, Betelehem Akalework, has faced severe online abuse, including death threats and physical harassment, forcing her to move home twice in two years.

She and her colleagues use social media to campaign for gender equality, challenging entrenched gender norms and attitudes in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous nation.

Their activism tackles highly sensitive issues in this largely conservative Christian country, such as sexual harassment, rape, female genital mutilation, and child marriage.

Betelehem, who co-founded the Ethiopian Women Human Rights Defenders Network (EWHRDN) and the advocacy platform Afro Feminism – Seta Set Power (Women in Power) in 2021, has experienced significant personal and professional repercussions.

Her social media and email accounts have been hacked, and private information, including photos and her home address, have been stolen and shared online.

In a particularly harrowing incident, her contact details were posted on a prostitution page on Telegram, resulting in numerous men contacting her for sexual favors.

This invasion of privacy, combined with threats of gang rape and physical harm, has caused immense psychological damage to Betelehem and her family.

At an event in Addis Ababa, Betelehem was physically harassed by men who followed her to the toilet and threatened her life.

This relentless harassment forced her to relocate twice, in 2022 and again last year. Two of her colleagues also had to move under similar threats.

The situation highlights the broader issue of online abuse against women in Ethiopia, which a recent UK-based non-profit research report described as “pervasive” and “underestimated.”

The report from the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) revealed that women and girls in Ethiopia face more online hate than men, accounting for nearly 78 percent of all cases.

Feminist activists in Ethiopia often face accusations of homosexuality, putting them at further risk in a country where gay sex is illegal and can carry a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Betelehem noted that as her advocacy for gender equality continued, she and her colleagues were increasingly labeled as LGBTQ advocates, leading to additional death threats and threats of physical and sexual harm.

This situation has been exacerbated by recent government crackdowns on same-sex activities in hotels and bars, encouraging citizens to report such “abominable” acts.

Lella Misikir, another prominent feminist activist on TikTok, also faces significant online abuse. After starting the campaign Fishkaye Dimtse (“My Whistle, My Voice”) in November 2023, which advises women to use whistles for protection against violence, she received numerous death threats and was physically assaulted in an Addis Ababa cafe.

Fearing for her life, Lella temporarily left social media in 2023. Activists like Lella are often forced to avoid public places and disguise themselves for safety. Despite their efforts, there is a notable lack of action from Ethiopian authorities.

Betelehem reported that when she approached the police with evidence of online threats, they said they lacked the mechanisms to identify and prosecute the perpetrators and instead advised her to leave the digital space.

The CIR emphasized that with over 80 languages spoken in Ethiopia, social media companies struggle to manage abusive posts effectively.

Kalikidan Tesfaye, a programme coordinator at EWHRDN, called for urgent action from both the government and social media companies to combat online attacks.

She stressed the need for proper enforcement mechanisms to protect women activists and ensure their safety in both online and offline spaces.

The plight of Ethiopian women’s rights activists highlights the critical need for stronger protections and greater support in their fight for gender equality.

As online abuse continues to be “normalised and invisible,” urgent measures are required to safeguard these courageous individuals and uphold their rights in the digital age.

Jessica Bayley

Jessica Bayley is an international author and journalist. She covers global affairs, hard news, lifestyle, politics, technology and is also the author of "The Ladies of Belgium."