I remember the day I discovered a story on the community of Awra Amba in northern Ethiopia. My feelings were a mixture of excitement, disbelief and eagerness to find out more, to study, to meet this community. Unfortunately, at that time there was very little information on them and travel from continents away was not feasible for me. As I started digging out whatever was available, my curiosity and fascination with the community eventually manifested into an MA thesis on Social Marketing to Tackle Gender Based Violence in small communities within Ethiopia, using Awra Amba as a case study. Where little written material was available, Paulina Tervo’s documentary titled Awra Amba inspired me to make do with what I had on hand. The following is an excerpt from my thesis introducing the community.
Awra Amba is a small community of about four hundred people in the Amhara region – northern part of Ethiopia. The community came into being in the 1970s but only gained national and international recognition recently because their concept of egalitarianism persevered thus far despite governmet crackdowns in the previous regime (Halpern, 2007) . Initially a ninety person community, Awra Amba has grown over the years, attracting likeminds who without external influence have managed to deconstruct the notion of gender roles and religious identities that continues to divide people amongst themselves. What is exemplary about Awra Amba is that it is a homegrown concept spearheaded by an iliterate man, that advocates for gender equality by questioning the patriarchal influence on traditions (Tervo, 2008) . The community welcomes women who leave their abusive households and villages to seek refuge in an environment that values their opinons and contributions. Ideas and practices that reinforce the notion of male superiority are frowned upon in the Awra Amba community.
The Awra Ambans are faced with much resistance and have come into conflict with neighboring communities because the ideals they maintain are at odds with conservative Amhara traditions in the region. However, the Awra Amba example has been lauded by local and international organizations and communities as a model for change that should be emulated.
It is home to members that come from different age groups, ethnic backgrounds and religious faith lines, although none are part of any religious institution, foregoing such an association due to its perceived and experienced divisive nature. Choosing rather to live in peace and harmony with fellow members, the Awra Amba community value hard work and good deeds over religious dogma (Mussa, 2004). They challenge the assumption that a highly educated community is capable of transgressing patriarchal thinking as even the founder of the community is illiterate, yet challenges the prevailing social norm of gender inequalities in the region. They harness education and equal access for boys, girls, women and men.
A home-grown initiative, members understand the negative impact of archaic traditional values on gender relations and development thereby choosing to transgress self-inflicted boundaries that challenge the livelihood of the community. They also challenge the assumption that socio-economics is a barrier to behaviour change in treating women and girls equally. Rather, Awra Ambans view gender equality as a prerequisite for community development. The “women can engage in cultivating, in weaving and in producing industrial goods and participating in different responsibilities. The men participate as well in fetching water, caring for children, in threading cotton and collecting firewood, activities which in most other parts of country are left up to women” (Mussa, 2004). The un-gendered division of labour has a positive generational impact as children in the community grow up integrating and internalizing an equality perspective that has the ability to continue impacting neighbouring communities if we look at it from a social learning theory point of view – doing by learning from what others do.
With regards to the administration of the community, there are more than ten committees whose members are democratically elected without a gender bias thereby encouraging female participation in community governance. Village committees work and advise on issues ranging from maternal health and reproductive rights to community conflict resolution mechanisms. As a cooperative, profits from the community weaving business and grain mill are divided equally among all members once a month. Already the community has garnered local and international admiration and support and also lauded as a model to alleviate poverty and promote gender equality.
Nestled in the middle of conservative Amhara, Awra Ambans are truly progressive in how they deal with tradition inflicted GBV. The community drew their own memorandum of understanding in 1989 which comprises community issues and principles of which gender equality has been set as a priority. Firstly, as has been discussed above there is an ongoing rejection of patriarchal patterns as demonstrated in their rejection of religious organizations and their administrative set up. Challenging such patriarchal patterns and redefining masculinities enables them to tackle the roots of GBV. Specifically, the community bans the practice of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) which is rampant in the Amhara region. In addition, another prevalent practice throughout the region, early and forced marriages are forbidden. Women can only marry after having reached the age of 18 which is of course the legal age of consent, while men are restricted to age of 22 and above. In addition, marriages can only be carried out if both parties consent to the union. The consent of one party or only the parents is not enough. Awra Amba is also a refuge for women escaping violence in their homes with members welcoming female victims of violence who can live free of traditional prejudices.
Tervo, P. (Director). (2008). Awra Amba [Motion Picture].
Mussa, Mohammed. “Community Self-Help in Awra Amba.” 2004.
Halpern, Orly. In Ethiopia, one man’s model for a just society. August 21, 2007. http://www.meshanet.org/egalitarian.html
In the following video, director of the documentary Awra Amba speaks to BBC about her experience with the community. I highly recommend my readers access and watch her short documentary which is about 30 minutes.
Love & Light