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Silenced, shamed, threatened: new research reveals how online abuse has become normalised for Ethiopian women

Women in Ethiopia are being silenced, shamed and threatened by widespread online abuse that has become “so normalised it’s invisible”, according to research carried out by the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR). 

Researchers found that gendered online abuse is forcing women in Ethiopia to withdraw from public spaces and is significantly limiting their participation in public life, on and offline. 

CIR found that no social media site is safe for women, with Facebook overwhelmingly reported as the primary platform for abuse. Interviewees told researchers they experienced abuse across all of the social platforms they used and in both private and public channels. 

To conduct the research, the team interviewed 14 women who held prominent positions in Ethiopia, including in civil society and the media. They then analysed thousands of social media posts shared on X (formerly Twitter), Telegram, and Facebook in Amharic, Afaan Oromo, Tigrigna, and English, to identify the target, type and nature of the hate speech.  

Round-table discussions and workshops held in Addis Ababa helped inform the study and enabled the team to develop a list of over 2,000 inflammatory words used within abusive content, believed by CIR to be the most comprehensive of its kind in Ethiopia.

Mental health impacts, offline violence 

Online abuse and harassment have real-world impacts. Over 78% of those interviewed reported feelings of fear or anxiety after experiencing online abuse. 

“Women told us how online abuse had harmed their professional lives – some had their reputations damaged because online abusers often use lies or misrepresentations against women,” explained Fasika Tadesse, one of the study’s researchers.

“Some women stay away from online discussions and platforms to protect themselves. Many also described experiencing psychological issues such as trauma, depression, and stress, and said their social life, family life, and work environment were harmed.” 

Conversations with women in Ethiopia also revealed a concerning trend of offline violence following online abuse. Several women recounted stories of physical assaults and arrests; one interviewee was detained, and another had to flee the country following threats to her physical safety. 

“In some cases, we’ve seen online abusers attempting to mobilise action against the target. Some women told us that because of the online campaigns against them, they faced physical attacks or abuse,” Tadesse added.

While the link between online abuse and offline violence is difficult to ascertain, the negative impacts on women’s mental health and personal and professional lives are clear. For example, women who received online threats described the psychological toll of fearing for their physical safety and that of their families. 

One head of a women’s rights charity found images of her children – originally posted to her private Facebook – being used in online attacks against her, while another interviewee told CIR she had to keep her children off school for two weeks.

According to Tadesse, seeking support for online abuse is further complicated by how widely accepted it is. 

“In Ethiopia, online abuse is so normalised it’s invisible. When women speak out about the abuse they face online, they are told that if they don’t want to go through this, they should simply stay away from social media.”

Misogyny, mockery and gender stereotypes 

The research also sheds light on the nature of abuse targeting women online, and how it differs from the abuse experienced by their male counterparts. 

Researchers found that while men in Ethiopia received abuse related to their views or political positions, women encountered misogyny based on stereotypes around their appearance, marital status, and suspected relationships. 

“We found that women were repeatedly attacked online about their appearance, as well as their role in society or their family status, for example, whether they’re married or unmarried,” explained Tadesse.

Researchers found that women were often targeted by mockery or irony, as well as demeaning language.

While often considered less harmful than threatening or aggressive language, the research revealed that this kind of pervasive abuse has longer-term societal impacts on women by leading to their withdrawal from public life and continued marginalisation in society.

“Layered” attacks and intersectional abuse 

The risks associated with being a woman online are exacerbated when gender is targeted alongside other identity characteristics, such as ethnicity, race or religion, which can leave those on the receiving end feeling like they are suffering “layer after layer of personal attack”, Tadesse said.

The research findings also support the view that current events offline can fuel and impact debate and hate speech online. 

Researchers noted a relatively high prevalence of intersectional abuse targeting women and girls of Amhara and Oromo ethnicities, compared to other ethnicities – reflective of the violent conflict in these areas of Ethiopia when data was collected, between August 2023 and February 2024.

They also found that hate speech that flared up in response to political events – such as hate directed at women from certain ethnic groups involved in the ongoing conflict – may use more aggressive and inflammatory language.

Calling for change 

The online abuse of women in Ethiopia is made worse by the lack of action to tackle it – which CIR is hoping to help change. 

With over 80 languages spoken in Ethiopia, social media companies lack the resources and staff to keep on top of abusive posts, and many remain online for days after being reported.

“Our hope is that the 2000-word lexicon we’ve developed will help social media platforms when it comes to monitoring – and removing – online abuse in Ethiopia’s many languages,” said Tadesse.

The findings of the research – presented at an event in Addis Ababa on 9 May – also aim to help government institutions, civil society organisations, and social media companies understand the issue, as well as empower them with practical solutions. 

These recommendations are the product of roundtable discussions held in both Ethiopia and remotely. They include educational campaigns to counter gender stereotypes and boost media literacy; the creation of an online network to report abusive content; and the development of new laws that criminalise online harassment and abuse. 

CIR also highlights a need for greater social media accountability when it comes to combatting online abuse, noting that the responsibility to report posts often falls on survivors and individual users rather than platforms. The recommendations include enhanced reporting processes and the development and maintenance of context-specific lexicons – such as the one developed in this study – to improve content moderation in low-resource languages. 

CIR’s research into online abuse in Ethiopia – as well as a recommendations whitepaper – is available to read and download, here.

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