Challenging notions of consent: how the feminist movement in Ethiopia is transforming education

Bridie Taylor | Aug 12, 2019
Selam Goshu-18-Selassie School-24th May-2011-3
No matter where you are in the world a fierce– debate prevails about the appropriate age to teach children about healthy relationships and consent. Here in the United Kingdom, news of consent finally making it on the national curriculum or books on consent aimed at toddlers are met with a decidedly mixed reception.Even at the highest international levels policy makers are conflicted about how, when, or even if children should be taught about consent. But without equipping children and young people with the knowledge and learning to overthrow centuries of patriarchal systems, how can we expect them to create and actively participate in a world where the rights of all women and girls are respected, valued and realised?

Transforming education to transform society

Today, as the world celebrates International Youth Day under the theme of transforming education, it seems only right to shine a spotlight on ways we can transform education in order to transform society and the respect, protection and fulfilment of women’s rights. In Ethiopia, Womankind partner Setaweet is doing just that, bravely leading the way in tackling issues of consent and teaching future generations about gender inequality. 

Ethiopia just like many other countries suffers from entrenched gender inequality: according to the 2018 Global Gender Gap report, Ethiopia ranks 117 out of 149 countries. This means women and girls continue to be denied their rights to engage in society as full citizens, face severe restrictions on their involvement in social, economic and political spheres and regularly experience violence and sexism in their everyday lives. However, there is increased optimism amongst the Ethiopian women’s rights movement that systemic women’s rights issues can now be addressed. In 2018, Abiy Ahmed was appointed as the new Prime Minister and he has already opened up spaces for dialogue on human rights and social justice, including on gender equality and women’s rights.  In addition, there has been a revision of the Ethiopian legal framework for charities (Charities and Societies (CSO) Proclamation) allowing a wider range of organisations to work on human rights. 

Creating a curriculum that challenges the status quo

Against this backdrop of ingrained gender inequality, Setaweet conceptualised the Gendershops initiative. Gendershops is a ground-breaking training for girls and boys in secondary schools in Addis Ababa that aims to create a critical shift in understanding of gendered relationships and their limitations and to promote and encourage gender equality.  

The Gendershops training curricula was carefully crafted with  input from Ethiopian teenagers to cover key topics including; differentiating between sex and gender, everyday sexism and stereotypes, healthy relationships, masculinity and the power of sisterhood.   
And the approach shows signs of working. Looking specifically at the session on healthy relationships, which aimed to build students understanding of relationships as partnerships, based on consent and free from violence, analysis suggests that the issue of consent is being understood by an increasing number of students. Through the use of a widely used video and discussion, also used by the police in the UK, Setaweet trainers compared the issue of consent to having tea. The messaging was clear, if someone had accepted an invitation for tea when they arrive, then change their mind, you should not force them to have the tea.  

After the training, there was a noticeable shift among boys disagreeing with the statement ‘when a girl says ‘no’, it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘no’, it just means try harder’: of those surveyed those strongly disagreeing shifted from 11.6% before the training to 16.1% afterwards. Those  disagreeing shifted from 22.4% before to 29% afterwards.

Selam, 18-year-old student at Selassie High School in Addis Ababa, highlighted how her mind set has changed following the training: “I have learned a lot from the workshop, it has taught me that I can make decisions on my own without being pressured from anybody no matter who pressures me. When there is a relationship between a boyfriend and a girlfriend and the boy is pressuring me for sex, I now know I can say no.”

Consent is complex – but change is possible

Whilst views on healthy relationships and consent definitely shifted for these students, the issue of consent remains very complex and not all findings were as encouraging. Girls generally disagreed with the statement that ‘sometimes girls want to have sex even when they say “no.” but boys seemed somewhat unsure how to answer the question with 32% neither agreeing nor disagreeing before and after the training. Setaweet are committed to further exploration of this topic and ways in which they could discuss the topic in different ways in future trainings. 

Abreham Samuel-15-St. Joseph-20th May-2011-9

The impact of centuries of entrenched gender inequality evidently isn’t going to change overnight and more training and research is needed to prove the Gendershops’ ability to shift gender consciousness and encourage further uptake. But the students’ support for the training is clear: “I believe that the training has helped me in regards to the way I look at women”, said 15-year-old Abraham. 

Transforming education has the power to challenge young people’s way of thinking and challenging young people's way of thinking has the power to transform the world for everyone. 

If you believe in the power of education to transform society and reduce the discrimination of women and girls share the post using the hashtag #YouthDay!

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