Online abuse silences women in Ethiopia, study finds

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — Research into online abuse and hate speech reveals most women in Ethiopia face gender-targeted attacks across Facebook, Telegram and X.

The abuse and hate speech are prompting many Ethiopian women to withdraw from public life, online and off, according to the recent research.

The Center for Information Resilience, a U.K.-based nonprofit organization, spearheaded the study. The CIR report, released Wednesday, says that women in Ethiopia are on the receiving end of abuse and hate speech across all three social media platforms, with Facebook cited as the worst.

Over 2,000 inflammatory keywords were found in the research, which looked at three Ethiopian languages — Amharic, Afan Oromo and Tigrigna — as well as English. The list is the most comprehensive inflammatory word lexicon in Ethiopia, according to the researchers.

Over 78% of the women interviewed reported feelings of fear or anxiety after experiencing online abuse.

It is highly likely similar problems exist in areas of society that have not been analyzed yet, said Felicity Mulford, editor and researcher at CIR.

“This data can be used by human rights advocates, women’s rights advocates, in their advocacy,” she said. “We believe that it’s incredibly impactful, because even though we’ve only got four languages, it shows some of the [trends] that exist across Ethiopia.”

Online abuse is so widespread in Ethiopia that it has been “normalized to the point of invisibility,” the report’s authors said.

Betelehem Akalework, co-founder of Setaset Power, an Afro-feminist movement in Ethiopia, said her work has opened doors to more-serious, targeted attacks.

“We [were] mentally prepared for it to some extent,” she said. “We [weren’t] surprised that the backlash was that heavy, but then we did not anticipate the gravity of that backlash. So, we took media training, and we took digital security trainings.”

The Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Center, established three years ago, offers protection for human rights defenders and social media activists in the country.

The center’s program coordinator, Kalkidan Tesfaye, said there must be more initiative from the government in education and policymaking to help women protect themselves from online abuse.

“In our recommendation earlier, we were talking about how the Ministry of Education can incorporate digital safety training … a very essential element to learning about computers or acquiring digital skills,” Tesfaye said.

The researchers also investigated other protected characteristics under Ethiopian law, including ethnicity, religion and race. The findings showed that women face compounded attacks, as they are also often targeted for their ethnicity and religion.

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