Nov 4 , 2023

With a demography predominantly young and diverse population that grows at an astronomical rate, catcalling and bullying are both forms of harassment that involve unwanted attention which affect the victim's mental and emotional well-being, writes Bereket Balcha, works in the aviation industry and is passionate about fiction writing. He can be reached at

A friend in her mid-twenties confided in me that she repeatedly finds herself on the receiving end of catcalls the moment she steps foot outside her home.

From the street to public transport and workplaces, the interaction may escalate to physical contact at times in a blatantly purposeful or unwittingly spontaneous manner.

In a discourse on how aggression involves using power and control to intimidate and demean others, my friend is left in doubt and confusion about how to respond. She developed a coping mechanism of ignoring the jeers, laughing them off or fighting them off with obscene replies depending on her emotional state at that moment.

The issue is global. A recent report in the China Daily Newspaper recounts a short film, "By Your Side," which depicts a woman lawyer who defends men accused of sexual assault, only to fall prey to the crime herself. This forces her to confront the challenges faced by victims she hitherto challenged.

It highlights the plight of victims, who often struggle to prove their suffering and defend themselves. The Chinese film similarly depicts the victims' shock, confusion and helplessness.

The film's main objective was to raise awareness, even among its cast and crew who were initially unaware of what constituted harassment. In the words of Albert Einstein, solution-finding begins with problem-framing.

While a bit dramatic, the message is pertinent. Creating the same level of awareness between victims and perpetrators about the full extent of legal implications and consequences of infringement is critical.

Equally concerning is bullying, which overlaps with behavioural-oriented harassment.

A Hollywood star and activist against bullying, Salma Hayek, argues that the perpetrators of bullying are more tragic than the victims. She suggests that bullies are the ones who need the most help, as they are likely projecting their self-hatred due to neglect, belittlement and lack of affection.

It is a significant issue affecting the youth as perpetrators are barely mindful of how far the consequences of their actions might go. It underscores the need for unconventional methods and extensive engagements to address this grave issue.

Two recent reports from France and Ethiopia accentuated the alarming issue of unaddressed teenage bullying in high schools. A 13-year-old girl drowned in the Seine River in Paris after being subjected to a blackmail scheme involving compromising photos. Meanwhile, in this country, a young woman's social media account was hacked and used to post repulsive and vulgar content in her name.

The parents in Paris accused school officials of negligence in taking her complaints into account, considering she was repeatedly targeted by a group of classmates who called her names and spread rumours. Her death has sparked public outrage and calls for a comprehensive approach to address school bullying.

Both cases not only raise serious concerns about the impact of bullying on teenage mental health but also provoke thoughts about the role of technology in bullying. They emphasise the need for schools and governments to address the problem.

Unfortunately, cyberspace has become the new frontier where bullying is staged.

With a demography predominantly young and diverse population that grows at an astronomical rate, the issue of catcalling, harassment and bullying can no longer be ignored in Ethiopia.

It is already extending its roots to the schools. I have heard of an incident recently where a child's vehement request to change schools, accompanied by tears baffled the parents. The issue remained quite an enigma as the child refused to disclose the reason except for hatred of the school.

Unfortunately, persistent physical and verbal abuse by a naughty classmate at school was the cause. It had taken a heavy toll on the child, causing nightmares while significantly impacting educational performance and enjoyment of school.

Swiftly, the school administration was alerted and the offending student and their parents were briefed. It was relatively straightforward to discipline the offender, but the damage to the victim could not be taken back.

It was relatively manageable because it occurred in a private school with fewer students and greater administrative agility. The outcome would be more dire in a larger scale of public schools.

But all all hope is not lost.

Restricting access to mobile phones for young adults is found to be one preventive measure to minimise the risk of bullying as it limits the opportunities for taunts to harass their victims through text messages or social media platforms.

France also adopted a tried and tested experience from Denmark, “Empathy classes”, launched in the 1990s. Denmark has consistently ranked at the top of the UN's World Happiness Report, and one of the key factors is its focus on empathy education.

Students are encouraged to share their life challenges openly within their class and to empathise with others' problems. They covered students aged six years and considered essential to learning until they came of age.

This approach is based on two fundamental assumptions: a child's mind is a clean slate and kindness, like any skill or knowledge, can best be taught while children are at an early stage and in the absence of any attempt to educate to the contrary, the human mind is incapable of understanding the suffering of others.

Danish educators believe that empathy is a skill that can be learned and developed through practice. They also think that children must learn to empathise with others from a young age before they have a chance to formulate negative biases or prejudices.

It involves various activities, such as sharing stories and personal experiences, discussing different emotions and how to identify them in others, role-playing and simulations. The goal of these activities is to help students develop the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

While preventive action is always the best, as in any disorder known to mankind, equipping people with the right to know how to deal with situations is equally important. Giant banners conveying a powerful message denouncing it would not only be beneficial but also a breath of fresh air in a city space filled with the ubiquitous display of commercial ads only.

A level playing field of understanding will enable the unambiguous identification and optimal resolution of infractions, ensuring accountability.

Ignoring concerns and considering them insignificant would be a disservice to those who suffer in silence. A lack of empathy can tarnish the hopes and futures of the most vulnerable members of society.

PUBLISHED ON Nov 04,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1227]

Bereket Balcha works in the aviation industry and is passionate about fiction writing and can be reached at (

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