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Navigating Identities in Ethiopia

Peace Corps’ Intercultural Competence, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (ICDEIA) approach seeks to reflect and support the diversity of the United States through its staff and Volunteers, who represent a broad collection of social identities, including race, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, marital status, and socioeconomic status, among others.

How might a Volunteer’s social identities impact their service?

The information below provides additional context about how different social identity groups may experience service and what types of ICDEIA-related support you can expect from the Peace Corps.

Accessibility and disability considerations

Volunteers with disabilities in Ethiopia will face many challenges emanating from the lack of infrastructure and prejudicial attitudes that people hold about people with noticeable disabilities.

There is a lot more progress to be made in Ethiopia to educate citizens and overcome discrimination against physically challenged individuals and provide them with needed supports.

In rural locations, people may not know how to support people with disabilities, and some may even fear that they cannot do things on their own.

Infrastructures like ramps, railings and elevators are not common except in a few government and private institutions in the capital. Volunteers with physical disabilities will encounter many more challenges in rural locations.

Staff are committed to exploring creative and innovative ways to support reasonable accommodations for Volunteer success.

Gender role considerations

Even though efforts are underway to assert and establish gender equality at home and workplaces, the general culture is very patriarchal – men have the power and authority to decide on family and community matters.

Women generally have traditional responsibilities that center in the home. These include caring for the family, cooking, cleaning the home, and working long hours for the family wellbeing. Some of these roles have been defined this way for generations and rooted in strongly held religious beliefs-that are therefore hard to change.

On the contrary, men maintain the role of leadership including running businesses, farming, and other income earning activities. On occasion, women may assist men with these chores but not the other way around.

In many parts of the country, girls are put in charge of household chores even at early ages and many underage girls are wed at an early age for economic and cultural reasons.

Women do not take their husbands name after marriage and instead continue to be called by their fathers’ name.

Some educated women are hired in government offices including as teachers and a few may be in authority positions. But given excessive responsibilities that women have at home, full time commitments at work will not be easy for most of them. In the same way, existing rigid gender roles in rural communities keep women from decision making and financial positions/maintaining their own finances.

Volunteers may find it difficult to make friends with young women and integrate into rural communities since women’s socialization outside of their homes is very limited and since they are unable to step out from home for things beyond family matters. This may especially be the case for women identifying and presenting Volunteers.

Perceptions of women are mostly critical in rural communities. People easily criticize the way they dress, their time outside of their homes, and their relationships or friendships and therefore such women live under fear of being criticized. Volunteers are advised to take this to mind in the event that their friends who are women hesitate to show up for community work.

Because girls who have come of age are expected to be married according to the local culture, women identifying and presenting Volunteers may find that they are constantly asked about their marital status or if they have a relationship.

LGBTQI+ considerations

Generally in Ethiopian culture, religion and law, gender refers only to cisgender, binary identity and because of that, there is little understanding of any other gender identities or expressions. Likewise, people do not understand and use gender-neutral pronouns that may be used to refer to trans or non-binary people in the United States.

According to the Ethiopian criminal law, same sex relations and marriages are illegal and punishable by imprisonment. Public perceptions of and reactions towards LGBTQI+ individuals and activities are rather hostile, possibly leading to physical violence against individuals found or rumored to identify as LGBTQI+ or to engage in related activities.

Overall, people do not talk about issues related to LGBTQI+ nor do they make efforts to learn about them. These views are widespread and deeply held regardless of an individual’s faith or religious affiliations, education, economic levels or exposure to other perspectives.

Volunteers should be mindful of cultural norms and respect local laws; also, they are advised to use their best judgment and carefully consider the safety and security implications and guidance if they decide to approach topics related to sexual orientation and gender identities in their communities and while traveling to other locations within Ethiopia.

LGBTQI+ Volunteers have served in Ethiopia appreciating support from peers. Most have chosen not to disclose this part of their identity outside of the Volunteer cohort.

There are also travel guidelines that Volunteers are encouraged to read to understand local context on these issues. (Ethiopia International Travel Information (state.gov)).

Racial and ethnic diversity considerations

Generally, Ethiopians assumes that all Americans are White and wealthy, and that racial diversity does not exist.

Due to the recent large influx of Chinese workers into the country, Volunteers of Asian descent may not be viewed as American in many places, including regional capitals. It is common for these Volunteers to be referred to as “Chinese” and be called “China-China” or face microaggressions around martial arts abilities or speaking accent.

Likewise, Black/African American Volunteers may not be viewed as American. Some could be taken as coming from other African countries or could be asked if they are really American. Despite the presumption that they might blend in easily, some of these Black/African American Volunteers find it difficult to integrate. It is also possible that some Black/African American Volunteers can be taken as Ethiopians.

White Volunteers, on the other hand, will likely get deferential treatment including not having their U.S. citizenship questioned and automatically being assumed to be American. Navigating certain privileges and being an ally to other Volunteers and local people who may not be treated in the same way will be important as a White Volunteer. White Americans may face spontaneous price increases when shopping at places where they are not regular customers. White Volunteers may also stand out more and receive different types of unwanted attention more often because of this aspect of their identity.

While many Ethiopians accept the possibility that Volunteers can be of Ethiopian or Eritrean descent, they may not understand that these Volunteers are not familiar with the local culture. They also may not understand that these Volunteers don’t speak Amharic or Tigrigna proficiently or that English could be their first language. Integration may still take effort for these Volunteers.

Volunteers are encouraged to turn such encounters into learning experiences, sharing American values and deepening local community members’ understanding of American multiracial and multicultural diversity.

Age considerations

Generally, older people are received/treated with high respect in both rural and urban communities of Ethiopia. People assume that the old are more knowledgeable, experienced and trustworthy and this can be the way older Volunteers are viewed in such communities.

It is also common that older people are provided support and given precedence over other folks. Young people may get up and leave them their seats or give them right-of-way when passing by. Occasionally, older Volunteers may be granted such favors, and can expect to view these considerations as a sign of goodwill and hospitality and not as an indication of their inability to do things on their own.

Even though friendship is mostly age-bound in rural Ethiopia, older Volunteers have succeeded in establishing good circles of friends with younger folks working and living in the same village with them.

Religious considerations

Ethiopia has religious practices that date back more than thousands of years. Likewise, long traditions of faith spanning across generations are deeply ingrained and integrated into the culture and all aspects of life including local politics.

Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Protestant are major religions practiced in their respective denominational churches and mosques that are available almost everywhere in all communities. Wherever they are assigned within their host regions, it is essential that Volunteers understand and respect the importance that religion holds in the lives of Ethiopians. Volunteers who show respect for local beliefs are more likely to be accepted into the homes and lives of the members of their new community.

Based on Ethiopia’s longest traditions of varying faith groups living together, there is a remarkable degree of tolerance and co-existence for interfaith engagement of citizens. Volunteers who do not belong to any of the local faith-groups are not pushed out as long as they do not oppose local religious practices or attempt to impose their own beliefs on members of their community.

Volunteers are advised to use their best judgment or consult with Peace Corps staff if members of their community ask them about their religion or show interest to take them to their local church or mosque. As an expression of genuine hospitality, they might ask that they accompany them and Volunteers may politely decline if they do not wish to do so. This might be frustrating to some Volunteers, and being consistent and respectful will help without damaging relationships and losing the community’s trust in them.

Different religious groups require their members to take part in fasting. The duration and types of abstentions vary according to the religious traditions. For Orthodox Church believers, the longest fasting period runs for 55 days from March to late April. Members do not eat for most of the day and their diet changes to non-meat and dairy products. For Muslim followers, Ramadan is the main fast where members abstain from eating during daylight. Volunteers’ experience during these and other fasting seasons has been generally positive where they enjoy the meals during these seasons.

Considerations for Volunteer couples

Ethiopians value marriage and give special respect to people who are married. Volunteer heterosexual couples will also be given such regard and respect.

There is a general expectation for any two people of the opposite sex to be married in order to live together. Same sex relations are illegal.

When the relationship dynamics and gender roles between Volunteer couples is different from the local norm, it is generally appreciated and accepted as positive for heterosexual couples. Couples do not face pressures to change their American roles and conform with traditional Ethiopian relationship roles.

During the weeks of pre-service training, Volunteer couples live together with their host families unless there has to be an exception dictated by the nature of their program and community-based training requirements.

Volunteer couples will get invited to events or family celebrations together and will be expected to attend these events together unless there are situations beyond their control.

Because men are perceived in Ethiopian society as the dominant gender, people may choose to interact with and direct all questions (that concern the couple) toward the man. During group interactions in the presence of the couple, people choose to look at the man rather than the woman, and this might offend the Volunteers who are women identifying or presenting. Understanding the norm on this can help with being patient.

Questions about whether or not they have children are common and couples may seek guidance from staff on how to approach such questions.

Types of ICDEIA support available in country

Peace Corps Ethiopia is training staff and will continue to do so in order to create a staff-led ICDEIA team that works to intentionally foster a more inclusive and equitable organizational culture within Peace Corps. The ICDEIA team will collaborate with the Peer Support Network and other Volunteer committees to create an understanding on the long traditions and deep-seated faith-based practices of Ethiopians. It will also seek inputs from the Volunteer community on various ICDEIA efforts from working to make training and programming more effective and appropriate to co-creating ideas to strengthen inclusion and belonging for Volunteers, staff, and host country partners. Peace Corps Ethiopia also will organize ICDEIA related reference materials such as intercultural frameworks, ICDEIA competencies , and other training materials and documents to support Trainees and Volunteers.