Domestic abuse against women in Ethiopia: The price of not knowing her pain

Everyone knows the presence of domestic abuse against women in Ethiopia; unfortunately no one knows how bad it is.

Emnet Assefa


Every year countries around the world host more than 1000 events related to the March 8th International Women’s Day. Women’s rights advocate groups, schools, hospitals, banks, charities and individuals all have something to say or do to honor the day women celebrate their political, economical and social achievements. But every year, the day comes and goes by only to be followed by the next abuse against millions of women in many parts of the world.      

This year’s is preceded by a heartbreaking story of a young woman from India. On Dec. 16 last year, the world woke up to a horrifying story that came from Munikra, a crowded neighbourhood in the southern part of New Delehi, India. A 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern was assaulted and gang-raped by six men on the very bus she was travelling with her male companion. 12 days later she died of gastrointestinal and brain damage in a hospital in Singapore. Her story caused a shockwave of revulsion throughout the world, but more so in India.

The case represents the typical tale of the fate of millions of women throughout the world, proving right the argument that a woman is never safe anywhere.

Ethiopia is no stranger to tales of similar enormity either. In Oct. 2011 an Ethiopian airlines flight attendant lost both her eye sights after her estranged husband stabbed her eyes with a sharp knife. Two months ago, another estranged husband gunned down the mother of his two kids in a broad daylight in the heart of Addis Ababa; and the number of acid attacks against women has shown a disturbing increase since the first case involving Kamilat Mehdi and her ex-boyfriend was reported in 2007.

 Unknown scale

While these are accounts that found their ways to the media, finding out the true scale of domestic abuse against women in Ethiopia looks bleaker now than it did in the last 20 years. For a start, the last comprehensive study documenting domestic abuses against women throughout Ethiopia was a 2008 study conducted by the Ethiopian Women Lawyer’s Association (EWLA).  Among the key findings of this study is the depressing fact that the “police don’t consider domestic violence 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 other words the police have not as much of an account, much less comprehensive data, on the full scale of domestic violence against women in Ethiopia. That complicates the suffering of Ethiopian women whose stories remain out of sight and hence out of solution. Owing to that currently no one is able to tell if the trend is on the rise or simply more stories are finding their ways to the media than it was the case before.

Zenaye Tadesse, Executive Director of EWLA, confirms this when she said, “it’s difficult to say its current trends in numbers when there are no studies available.” However, Zenaye admits the problem is widespread, as reports continued coming to her office from many parts of the country.

 Unable to help anymore

Since it was first established in 1993 EWLA has not only been active in providing legal protections to abused women, it was also active in producing nationwide surveys, brochures and publicising different cases of abuses against women. As a mere initiative of a few brave women EWLA has had a huge amount of its operational costs covered by donors, individuals who believed in its cause and to a certain extent global corporations. The 2008 comprehensive survey, for example, was funded by, among others, the British aid arm DFID, Embassy of Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands and Oxfam GB. Alas, Ethiopia’s controversial societies and charities proclamation 621/2009 saw EWLA’s financial resources drastically slashed.

According to the proclamation, Non Governmental Organizations and Charities and Societies Organizations (NGOs/ChSOs) based in Ethiopia but that receive more than 10% of their funding from international sources are termed as “resident” charities & societies.  Among charitable purposes stipulated under Article 14 of this proclamation, only local Ethiopian Charities and Societies (those receiving less than 10% of their income from foreign sources) can work on the advancement of human and democratic rights, the promotion of equality of nations, nationalities and peoples and that of gender and religion.

EWLA’s 2008 survey revealed most of the cases related to domestic violence do not make it to the public, (69% of the women surveyed said they are ashamed of bringing their stories out) and the very few that made it both to the public and court of justice have made it with supports from civil society organizations such as EWLA. Unfortunately, the new proclamation has brought an awkward end to that.

Now Zenaye says “roughly 80% of the cases we are handling are cases related to marriage”: helping women who seek for divorce get legal support.

 Home is more dangerous

Although nationwide surveys to indicate the magnitude of domestic abuses against women in Ethiopia are hugely curtailed, separate studies are being produced by a few individuals. A 2012 study conducted in East Wollega zone in western Ethiopia revealed that intimate partner violence against women is more prevalent in Ethiopia and is among the highest in the world. According to this study by Sileshi G. Abeya and his colleagues from the Addis Ababa University School of Public Health, husband’s act of abusing his wife is considered acceptable for two insignificant and yet powerful reasons: “failure to give birth and suspicion for infidelity” and “behaving as controlling and non-domestic women.” According to this study, most women do not report cases of violence by their intimate partner “primarily due to the fact that they may be stigmatized and ashamed by the community. In some cases, it may result in life of discrimination with consequences like difficulty in re-marriage.”

Culturally women in Ethiopia are exposed to harmful traditions abandoned centuries ago by many countries around the world.  Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), for example, picks an all time high and sophistication in different parts of Ethiopia. Sileshi G Abeya and his colleagues say that “the traditional tendency that places women in a subordinate position to men has led to a culture of justification of accepting intimate partner violence against women.”

Ethiopia has signed and ratified both the 1979 UN’s Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of violence against Women, which recognizes violence against women as a violation of human rights. But CEDAW data on governments behaviour towards women shows that although Ethiopia’s law is in agreement with CEDAW provisions, “there is spotty enforcement; the government may or may not signal its interest in challenging cultural norms against women.”

 United they stand

On Feb 24 Azeb Mesfin, widow of Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, was elected as president of Ethiopian Women’s Federation, a new initiative, during its first assembly in Nazareth town, 100 kms south of Addis Ababa. Details of the purpose of the Federation are sketchy but speaking at its first assembly, Azeb called upon other associations and women’s right advocates to work together to tackle poverty, which is an essential part of the fight against domestic abuses against women.

The establishment of the Women’s Federation in the eve of this year’s celebration of Women’s Day on March 8th is good news; it is one more addition to the 1000 plus worldwide events to mark the day, too.  And electing Azeb Mesfin as its president is meaningful; as someone with an experience over the past few years in participating and chairing different women related forums, she may have a significant contribution and the right weight to bring the battle to curb domestic violence against women one step ahead. But it will be a good start both for the Federation and other stakeholders to work together and identify the true scale of the problem first before trying to solve it. One woman’s suffering is many more people’s challenge; not knowing the price of her pain has deeper implications.


(Photo: The News Blog)

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