Ethiopian Culture


Primary Author
Nina Evason,

Family is the most important aspect of Ethiopians’ lives. It forms the basis of people’s support networks, with relatives often being mutually reliant on one another to meet everyday challenges (see Collective Life and Community Belonging in Core Concepts). The importance of family ties means that many Ethiopians feel a strong obligation to support that may seem ‘distantly’ related by Western standards. For example, an Ethiopian person living in an English-speaking Western country may prioritise sending money back to extended family members overseas over building their personal savings. In some cases, entire communities can be dependent (directly or indirectly) on the provisions of an immigrant living overseas.

Household Structure

The basic household structure is traditionally large, multigenerational and . It is customary for the wife to move in with her husband’s family at marriage. Therefore, the average Ethiopian household usually consists of three generations: (1) the eldest couple, (2) their sons, sons’ wives and any unmarried daughters, and (3) the grandchildren from their married sons. However, many people may live in nuclear families in cities or in other countries. Sons are often encouraged to find their own land and, in urban areas, they usually aim to move out of their parents’ house with their wife. However, resources are still shared between family members even when children move out of the home.

Ethiopians usually have multiple children. In urban areas, the minimum is generally four or more, and in rural areas, the number can be much higher. However, the government has put a lot of effort into promoting family planning considering the high population and lack of resources. The use of contraceptives among married women has increased significantly from 6% in 2000 to 27% in 2012.1 In 2016, it was estimated that most women had their first child around the age of 20.

Household Dynamics

Household dynamics can vary significantly between the different , regions and religions of Ethiopia. Furthermore, ideas of adulthood and/or the coming of age of children can vary between and genders. For example, while the age of consent and adulthood is legally 18, ideas of maturity may vary in rural areas where notable lifecycle events such as circumcision or marriage are also taken into account.3

The rules of a family are very important and are expected to be followed. Throughout all sectors of Ethiopian society, parents and elders are highly respected. Therefore, a child is expected to never talk back at their parents. If a child is disobedient, corporal punishment is a common form of discipline in Ethiopia. Most individuals’ decisions continue to be influenced by their parents in adulthood, especially for women. In rural areas, parents have even more authority. Elder family members expect to be cared for by their children and grandchildren into their old age. 

Gender Roles

Gender roles are clearly defined in Ethiopia. Men hold the most authority, whilst women are generally considered to be subordinate to their husbands and fathers. For example, in the absence of a father, the eldest son will usually adopt the role of the head of the household and hold more decision-making power than his mother. Furthermore, everything is subject to variances between different groups. For example, girls generally have more social power among the Surma group.4

Generally, men are expected to be sombre, brave, respectful and financially stable individuals.5 Meanwhile, the cultural ideal of a woman is characterised as a virginal and beautiful girl. Female sexual modesty is considered to be especially important. These cultural ideas of and femininity tend to dictate men and women’s participation in many activities in Ethiopia. This is most noticeable when observing men and women’s roles when hosting or cooking. For example, labour jobs (such as farming) are often seen to be inappropriate for women. It is an expectation that only men should kill animals, whilst women should cook and prepare them for food. Men are generally not meant to set foot in the kitchen or contribute to domestic chores.

It is important to note that Ethiopian women are expected to be very hard workers and capable people.6 The divide in gender roles of tasks emphasises complementary relations in labour. While men are generally the primary income earners, their wives are expected to partake in just as much work at home. Some argue that while boys get the hardest (physically) household tasks, girls have the more time-consuming ones. For example, food preparation can take hours. This difference means that some women or girls may have less time to attend school or concentrate on their career, unless the family has a servant.

Some younger or more liberal couples will share domestic tasks more. However, Ethiopian women are often judged by their domestic ability. For example, a ‘proper’ lady should know how to cut a chicken into 12 precise pieces. These roles are taught at an early age, with children learning to appreciate the difference between specific male and female tasks at school. In some conservative households, women may be reprimanded for failing to complete the housework. Furthermore, many men can find it socially embarrassing to be seen as doing the woman’s work. For example, a boy that has no sisters may find it shameful that he is required to help his mother in the kitchen.

In urban areas, women are generally well-educated and employed. However, men’s opinions are often valued more in the workplace and public sphere. Therefore, while women officially have access to processes to redress discrimination, societal mean that they seldom pursue that right. Women also generally have less access to education and land in Ethiopia for a number of cultural and social reasons. 

Marriage and Dating

Casual dating is not common in Ethiopia. People generally meet a partner with the expectation of marriage in mind. Marriage remains one of the most important events in one’s lifetime, representing the merging of two families when the woman moves into her husband’s home. It also signifies a couple’s maturity and full transition to social adulthood. 

Ethiopian men and women generally have a say in who their prospective partner will be. However, it is very important that the parents of the bride and groom approve of each others’ families before marriage. In some cases, the marriage may be arranged by two families that want to get closer. Interfaith marriages between members of different religions are generally rare. However, interethnic marriages are relatively common. 

Most people living in Ethiopia will abide by the traditional methods to find a partner. Generally, a group of elders (shimagile) will visit the bride’s family on behalf of the groom’s family and make the proposal for engagement. This is usually a priest, a mutual friend of both families, and a person of high status within the community. If everything goes well, the dowry (tilosh) will be arranged. Parents may promise their young daughters to other families for future marriages. However, these customs can vary significantly between

There is a cultural expectation that men will provide for their wife financially. Therefore, they usually wait until they finish school, get a job and can adequately support a couple before seeking to marry. On the other hand, an unmarried woman’s desirability and chance of marriage reduces as she ages; people are likely to become increasingly suspicious of an unmarried woman’s chastity. There is a strong stigma surrounding premarital sex, especially for women. Therefore, it is rarely admitted if it occurs.

The legal age of marriage in Ethiopia is 18 years for both girls and boys, but these laws are not always enforced. The rate of child marriages has declined significantly over the past decades. However, according to UNICEF’s 2017 estimate, 40% of girls are married before the age of 18.7 Such marriages generally occur among the more economically impoverished communities.

Divorce occurs, although not regularly, and customs surrounding it differ. For example, in some cases, divorced women are culturally prohibited from marrying another man from the same family or village as her ex-husband. Widow inheritance may be practised in some communities of Ethiopia, whereby a woman will be taken care of by her brother-in-law if her husband passes away. Generally, single women, widows and divorced mothers can become the subjects of community gossip. They may be seen as a burden on their family and a source of economic vulnerability. It is increasingly common for single women, such as widows or divorced mothers, to farm in order to sustain a living. 


1 Central Intelligence Agency, 2018
2 Central Intelligence Agency, 2018
3 Abebe, 2008
4 Abebe, 2008
5 Crivello & van der Gaag, 2016
6 Crivello & van der Gaag, 2016
7 Girls Not Brides, 2018

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