Kamilat Mehdi, a young Ethiopian from Addis Abeba, was acid burned by her ex-boyfriend; and Betel Addisu, a resident in Wollega, in western Ethiopia, was also acid burned by a man who had had an intimate relationship with her. Both attacks left the victims’ delicate faces disfigured beyond recognition, forever. And Aberash Hailay, a flight attendant at the national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, was left blinded by her ex-husband, who took both her eyes out with a knife because she wanted to leave him after years of troubled relationship. These are but few stories of violence against women that made it to the headlines in the last few years only.
Horrifying as these stories were, however, the effect in each instance was just a brief shock; a public reaction too weak to shake the nation off its cocoon of prejudice about rampant gender based violence against women. To the despair of many of us it usually takes few days for the narratives of sexual violence to take a form of blame shift from that of the perpetrators to the victims.The social discourse quickly tilts to reason out with the perpetrators – it is because “she told him she was in love with someone else,” “she asked him for a divorce”, “she told him she no longer wants him when she finished her university but he has been paying for her tuition,” the list of seemingly acceptable justifications goes on.
There are two disturbing elements to the above story. First, as is the case in most parts of the world, gender based violence in Ethiopia is best practiced by people who are close to their victims. Nearly two years ago this magazine reported about a rare study in 2012 conducted in East Wollega that revealed intimate partner violence against women in Ethiopia as being among the highest in the world. According to this study by Sileshi G Abeya and his colleagues from the Addis Abeba University School of Public Health, abuse by husbands against wives is considered acceptable for two insignificant, yet powerful reasons: “failure to give birth and suspicion for infidelity.” Second, what Sileshi G Abeya et al said in their study about“suspicion for infidelity” is not only taken by perpetrators to justify their violent acts, but the larger community to reason out with criminals. So in effect, it becomes okay to gun down the mother of your two children in front of a police, because, “she wanted to leave him for another man.” This was another horrifying story that hit the national headlines two years ago.
This widely practiced act of reasoning out with intimate partners-turned gender violence perpetrators is an epitome of criminal behavior spread across and tolerated by our communities- hidden by strong taboos that inflict shame on the victims than place responsibility on the perpetrators. A patriarchal society struggling to accept the equality of women (be it at homes or at work places) means many of these gruesome acts committed by men against women are not even reported to the police.
But on Oct. 1st this year a 16 year old student, Hanna Lalango, was snatched from the taxi she took to go home after a long day in the school. The investigating police officer told this magazine that Hanna was abducted by a gang of five who pretended to be commuters when she took the taxi. They then re-routed the taxi to take their victim to a place where they would take turns to sexually violate her delicate youth. Hanna’s sexual ordeal would last for ten solid days before she was found abandoned. Her parent’s attempt to save Hanna was too late. She died of her wounds just a few weeks later.
A manifestation of our society’s culture of secrecy means Hanna’s ordeal only came about to the public’s attention in the last week of November, after Blen Sahilu, a lecturer at the Addis Abeba University and a devoted gender equality activist, brought it to the sphere of social media.
What gives Hanna’s story a chilling effect is the fact that she was previously unknown to her abductors. According to the police, neither Hanna nor her offenders knew one another before. In other words this was a random act that has no merit of the shameful reasoning our society seemed at ease to fabricate in similar incidents of the past. It was a simple act of barbarism that can happen anywhere to any woman and anytime.
Failed by the law and the society
Hanna’s unfortunate story is an alarming wakeup call that women in Ethiopia are not only failed by the society, but also by the law. Since the media in Ethiopia started widely reporting cases of violence against women nearly two decades ago, hundreds of horrifying stories of abuses against women have been brought to the attention of the public. Some are too horrifying one can hardly go through narrating them, and others happen at such frequent rates and magnitude that make them part and parcel of our society’s accepted way of life.
In most instances, our society indulges gender based violence offenders to a mere “sorry” or trivial compensation through shabby traditional means of reconciliation led by elders. It is simply a traditional way of social life sustained by unforgiving conservatives who enjoy relegating the victims to a life of sustained physical and mental humiliation. More unsettling though, it is a means of encouraging the savagery for which a potential aggressor gets away with his crimes as victim’s family cannot or would not press charges. Hanna’s families say her offenders were audacious enough to send elders to settle the matter out of court.
Due partly to that, many gender based offences committed by men against women do not even make it to the attention and action of the police. On the ones that make it, convictions usually do not mean sentences commensurate with the savagery committed; but an end to a court saga that adds salt to the wounds of the victims and their families. Criminals who raped two year old infants and nine and ten year old girls often received around 20 years of jail term and many more rapes against young children have received sentences so unfair to the devastating impacts of the crimes.
A 2008 comprehensive study, the last one of its kind, by the Ethiopian Women Lawyer’s Association (EWLA) revealed a shocking reality that the “police don’t consider domestic violence against women as a serious crime, [and the act] isn’t registered as a separate offence…and [it is not] taken as seriously as crimes such as theft.”
In principle, the Ethiopian constitution has stipulated the equality of women with men in any sphere of life (Art. 35). Article 35(4) states that the state shall enforce the rights of women, and laws, customs and practices that oppress or cause bodily or mental harm to women are prohibited. It also guarantees women the benefit of affirmative action as compensation.
But sex and other gender based violence perpetrators are often sentenced to serve time that is merely equivalent to petty thieves jailed for offenses such as small scale corruption and organized burglary.Too lax are the sentences that the news of criminals jailed for gender based violence leaving the prisons before their sentencing is over – only to re-offend again- is all too common. Besides counting on social norms that want to keep the incidents a secret these criminals are emboldened by what they know is a legal framework that is too lenient towards them.
Mobilize the public
Thanks to social media mobilization by dedicated activists such as Blen Sahilu, Hanna’s ordeal has received a far more public reaction than crimes of similar scale before. A Facebook page dedicated for Hanna has attracted close to 20, 000 likes in just about a week. Ethiopian social media users are using this platform to express their frustrations at the failure of justice and their wishes to change the very way our society looks at women. The law has repeatedly failed our vulnerable women but this should be a moment of reckoning for our society. In the backdrop of this the media should be the force that encourages and promotes a massive campaign to get #JusticeForHanna and for countless others.
Generally apprehensive of social mobilization programs other than the ones it organizes, the government in Ethiopia, too, should join this campaign and encourage these changes of agents to use whatever means available to raise their voices and educate the very society from where these barbarians originate. Law enforcement bodies and the judiciary should also make it clear that the cost of such crimes is unaffordable.
Equally important, the Ethiopian government should rethink its controversial societies and charities proclamation 621/2009 that saw the financial resources of nongovernmental organizations working for gender equality and against gender based violence drastically slashed. These civil societies are needed to support violated women tell their stories and work with local authorities to shame the practice of sexual abuse. For all its achievements in protecting vulnerable women in the past, the Ethiopian Women Lawyer’s Association (EWLA) is now reduced to a small office doing nothing but giving advises to a few women looking for marriage annulments. Something terrible is bound to happen if a country and a nation lets perpetrators of gender based violence walk with their heads held high. #JusticeForHanna!