Ethiopia: Forgetting to Forget - the Rights and Welfare of Ethiopian Women and Girls Hangs in the Balance

The Women Deliver Conference is being held in Vancouver, Canada, 3-6 June 2019.
opinion

Meaza Kassa Gebremedhin, a resident of Addis Ababa and a single mother of three passed away on March 24, 2019. She had been receiving treatment at Alert Hospital after having been stabbed multiple times at her place of work by a colleague. The police apprehended the perpetrator shortly after the incident but managed to escape police custody and is currently still at large.

What is remarkable about her death or the circumstances surrounding the fight to get her and her family the justice they so deserve? Nothing really. Her case has seized the attention of many, with repeated calls for justice and promises her name will never be forgotten. But you see, it has. Two months on, we have forgotten. Her name and story join a long list of women, whose stories we have neglected, betrayed and forgotten.

Frehiwot Tadesse, a mother of two, was shot several times by her ex-husband in broad daylight in Addis Ababa.. She is joined by Atsede Nigussiem, 26, who was at home in Tigrai, when she was attacked by her husband Haimanot Kahsai, 29, who poured acid over her right when she opened a door to let him in.

She went through a string of intense surgeries to try and save her face, but such is the severity of her injuries, she now has to eat and drink through a straw. Hanna Lalango, a fifteen-year-old who on her way home from school was abducted by five men in a minibus and taken to another location and gang raped for several days. She died soon after she was taken to a hospital due to extensive internal injuries.

There are countless more who we know by their first names alone. Selome, who was shot and killed by a police officer when she was hanging out with her friend because she apparently refused to talk to him; Melat, whose life will never be the same again after having acid thrown at her face, while on her way home.

Same was the fate of Bethelem, who fell victim to an acid attack by a man who she refused to enter a relationship. He apparently loved her so much and was driven mad with desire and ruined the life of someone who he'd promised to love and cherish. Rounding off this illustrative list of people who we have betrayed is the fourteen-year-old Chaltu who worked in slave like conditions for a couple that swore to raise her as their own and met her demise at the hands of the husband who raped and drenched her in incendiary fluid.

Reports of numerous children, infants even, barely able to take care of themselves, being raped and molested by their fathers, brothers, uncles, extended family members as well as teachers and community and religious leaders make daily news. We have been satisfied with writing a quick "rest in peace" on social media, using hashtags calling for justice and visibility to all these victims, attending vigils, fundraising and endless meetings on how to visit them in hospitals and their families sitting in mourning after putting one more daughter in the ground. We are not hard on crime because we fail to recognize the full humanity of women and their right to live free from humiliation and violence.

Ethiopian women continue to live their lives in utter denial and equal measure of terror that they or their loved ones will meet the same fate. It is almost as if society has found it acceptable to have women live under such an environment where we survive day to day by the discretion of men and their desire not to harm us.

Women, after being cautioned against staying out too long after dark, come home to fathers who have assaulted or molested them all their lives; to uncles who they have been told to not be too friendly with; to husbands who beat them senseless over things one would not hit an animal over. Girls who are held back from uncovering their full potential, stay economically and emotionally dependent on their husbands or romantic partners, making it near impossible to speak out or leave when they are abused.

Some who are lucky enough to go to school and pursue their dreams full time are under constant threat of teachers and professors who want a little something for the trouble of having a woman in their classrooms. Others join the workforce but are subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace. The same women catch the eyes of a random stranger on the street, who immediately feel entitled to their bodies, attention and time, demand these women completely submit to his advances lest they want to be insulted, assaulted, or be subject to an acid attack.

Institutions tasked with enforcing the law are too lenient or downplay the severity of the plight of women and girls time and again by calling for criminal proceedings out of court though shimgilina. The police and public prosecutors have not been trained in gender sensitivity programs. They ridicule and belittle the experiences women, treating attempted rape and assault as something to be thankful for as it could have been so much worse.

Shame on the courts, public prosecutors, and the police for failing to as it is intended. Shame on them for letting this rampant lawlessness go unchecked and an environment of fear and terror rule the lives of women and girls in Ethiopia. We have missed countless teachable moments. We have let the words of the law fester in the pages they were written on and failed to use them to deter more incidents from taking place.

Shame on our representatives in parliament who saw fit shrink the civil society space and made it impossible to solicit funds from foreign sources to help work on issues related to human rights and gender equality. Results of such a move that changed the legal, policy and advocacy sphere for the last 10 years has crippled seminal institutions such as the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association and the Network of Ethiopian Women's Associations.

Shame on us women: mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, daughters and wives, who shield the monsters living among us for the fear that we might be subject to the scrutiny and derision of our communities that are all too familiar with the evil living in all our homes. Shame on parents who would do anything for their children but have abandoned their duty to teach them women deserve respect and dignity. Shame on them for raising entitled sons who see no problem with continuing their legacy of toxic behavior that has terrorized women for millennia. Shame on them for failing to realize that their angels can be someone else's nightmare.

Shame on all of us who refuse to believe victims; undermine their experiences and trauma; poke holes in their stories; and excuse behavior in men including intoxication, uncontrollable sexual urges or desire but never once extend the same benefit of the doubt for women.

Shame on all of us who have ridiculed the "What She Wore," an exhibit highlighting the different items of clothing rape victims wore the day of their attack. Shame on us for letting such a profound statement and awareness raising initiative turn into a clever anecdote for a party or a punchline for a joke. Shame on all of us who tell women to be virtuous, keep their heads down; never talk back and accept the way things are without question and if by some miracle how it could get better.

For a patriarchal country such as ours, steeped in religion, culture and tradition, our laws are surprisingly modern and entrenched in some gender equality policies. Ethiopia is party to a number of international and regional human rights treaties geared towards eliminating discrimination against women and providing for opportunities to fully participate and become agents of change in their lives and communities.

There are obvious gaps in the law, that much is true. However, it does not in any way compare to the gap that exists between text and practice. There is a strong sense that these laws were promulgated for a community of individuals who are more modernized and capable of understanding that half the population is in dire need of equal enjoyment and protection of rights and entitlements. There is so much to be done not just in every household but in highest levels of government.

There is talk of reforming criminal laws and procedure and a Working Group has been constituted for such a purpose. This is an excellent step in the right direction. However, issues regarding women's rights and welfare need a more holistic approach in every regard. A proposal for legal, policy and institutional reform would need to target the legislature, executive, judiciary and the civil societies. Here are some of my suggestions in this regard.

Reforms relating to the Federal and Regional Legislature:

Serious deliberations on the ban of the sale and distribution of dangerous chemicals to individuals who do not have legitimate use for them. Drafting stringent sentences for criminals that perpetrate acid attacks.

Serious discussions on the content of the law and elements constituting the crime of rape as well as the incorporation of marital rape. Stringent sentences to the crime of rape and sexual assault in general.

Discussions on sexual harassment in the workplace to also benefit and protect men. Immediate termination of employment contracts of those that have been found to sexually harass their colleagues. Employers to be fined if they fail to properly investigate and present final findings in two weeks. Permanent records to be kept at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and their regional equivalents. Gender sensitivity training to be given to employees of Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and their regional equivalents as well as the judicial bench tasked with hearing labor cases.

Reforms Relating to the Executive Branch will bring about:

Sensitivity training given to policemen and women as well as public prosecutors on the handling of cases involving rape, sexual and physical abuse and assault. Clear records with a clear chain of custody to be kept and reported by close of business to be kept.

The Anti-Corruption Commission in collaboration with the Ethics Committee of the Police Commission and the Federal Police to check for irregularities within the system.

Prosecute cases involving police brutality and rape and assault of women while in custody. Immediate suspension of police officers from line of duty once a complaint has been lodged against them and immediate expulsion from the force when their guilt has been established.

Federal Police Commissioner to extend invitation to monthly meetings to representatives from Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs, CSOs and government hospitals to discuss best lessons learnt and hindrances to working procedures with complete assurance of transparency and accountability.

Rehabilitative programs and training for criminals of physical and sexual abuse on consent and human rights in prisons.

Making policemen and women as well as public prosecutors open to scrutiny to see conviction rates and irregularities within the justice or prosecutorial system that hinders courts from giving the maximum sentences on crimes to do with rape, and physical and sexual assault.

Initiate studies on these issues by inviting international and national experts to identify gaps and find durable solutions for the review of the executive branch.

Reforms Relating to the Office of the Supreme Courts of the Federal and Regional State Governments will have to consider:

Issuing directives that include stringent sentencing guidelines for courts that review cases related to rape, physical and sexual assault especially when weighing and evaluating aggravating and extenuating circumstances.

Sensitivity training provided for judges and clerks presiding over cases to gain understanding of the pervasiveness of the problem and how their role is central in ensuring the deterrent, preventive and retributive aspects of criminal law.

National and international civil society organizations and other institutions including private citizens who have been excluded from working in human rights because of the restrictive Charities and Societies Proclamation that has now been repealed and replaced by another more welcoming legislation effective March 7, 2019, will have to solicit funds and secure experts in the field of gender equality, gender based violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights to start working in the field and produce results immediately. The Government and the Charities and Societies Authority, in particular, should call upon different stakeholders to discuss best ways forward and ensure organizations and foundations are registered and work in compliance with the law.

Furthermore, an initiative that I consider to be essential is the establishment of the Meaza Kassa Rape and Abuse National Network, that runs programs to prevent sexual violence, help survivors, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice all over the country. One specific service the Network will provide is the setting up of a special telephone helpline/hotline for victims of physical and sexual assault and provide them counseling and link them to resources to address their cases. The Network will hopefully be under the custodianship of the FDRE President and collaborate closely with Ministry of Health and Ministry of Justice to minimize the gaps that are likely to discourage victims from seeking help or perpetrators from evading justice.

The organization will have a special children and youth victims' unit and staffed by professionals that have undergone sensitivity training. Close collaborative work with organizations such as Association for Women's Sanctuary and Development (AWSAD) will further reinforce the efforts of the Network and help minimize the number of victims falling through the cracks.

One last suggestion I want to put forward is commissioning a study towards understanding the socio-economic effects of violence against women and girls not just on the victims themselves but on the overall country. Experts pooled from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs, Ministry of Education and Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority to see for instance, the time and resources wasted in prosecuting suspects and housing criminals in correctional facilities.

These resources could have gone towards the treatment of physical, sexual and psychological abuse and trauma victims have suffered, particularly in government run health facilities. It would also be beneficial to launch an investigation into how the Ethiopian economy would have fared if workplaces were more welcoming and women were sheltered from harassment and possibly estimate revenue lost due to such reasons.

We need concrete action backed by political will and the understanding of the Government of the responsibility it has towards 51% of the population. Women are the majority in the country and commitments made to them need to reflect that. We need accountability and transparency to see and review initiatives that are to be undertaken. We have reached a critical juncture whereby sitting on the sidelines unable or unwilling to change our circumstances is no longer acceptable or in our best interests. Let's, for the sake of everything we love and hold dear, start doing something today.

Ed.'s Note: Martha Basazienw Kassa, LLM (Harvard Law School), is a consultant on issues regarding international law and policy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. She can be reached at bmartha.kassa@gmail.com.

Contributed by Martha Basazienw Kassa

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