By alemayehu g Mariam
The truth is stranger than fiction
In my September 7 commentary, DIFRET: The Abduction of a Film in Ethiopia, I expressed my outrage over the aborted Ethiopian premiere of the film DIFRET. That film, based on a “true story” of Aberash Bekele, tells the dramatic story of a teenage victim of the inhuman and barbaric practice of “telefa” or “marriage by abduction/abduction of child brides” in certain parts of Ethiopia. The screening of that film in Addis Ababa on September 3 was halted seconds before it was scheduled to start. The director of DIFRET, Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, took the stage and announced with consternation and dismay:
Distinguished guests, ambassadors, we were just told by the police that we have to stop this film because there is a court order on it. We have not been informed prior to this. The Ministry of Culture knows about this and the government knows about this. This is the first time we are hearing it. This is obviously an attack on us and I am really sorry for this to happen and I hope we’ll see you again…
The “attack” on DIFRET was only the latest assault on free expression in Ethiopia by the ruling regime in that country. A month earlier in August, six popular independent publications including Afro Times, Addis Guday, Enku, Fact, Jano, and Lomi were shuttered and dozens of journalists were jailed or exiled. In July, the regime jailed the “Zone Nine bloggers” (named after a cell block holding political prisoners at the infamous Meles Zenawi Kality Prison just outside of the capital Addis Ababa), after illegally detaining them for some 80 days. In the same month, the regime arranged the abduction of Andaragatchew Tsgie, General Secretary of the Ethiopian opposition group known as Ginbot 7 Movement for Justice, Freedom and Democracy, in Yemen.
The pernicious institution of “marriage by abduction” (marriage by rape) in Ethiopia
“Marriage by abduction” is undoubtedly among the most barbaric acts of cruelty in the annals of human history. It is practiced in different forms in many parts of sub-Sahara Africa and South Asia. In its common occurrence in Ethiopia, the young abductor-suitor, usually accompanied by his friends, would stalk the girl of his choice and literally hunt her down like prey. The young men often on horseback would suddenly descend upon the girl as she returns from market, school or walking about doing chores. She may be alone or with friends. Her abductor-suitor with the aid of his friends would drag and load his human prize on his horse and gallop away to a secret location. There she is repeatedly raped by her abductor for days or weeks until she becomes pregnant. When she becomes pregnant, the abductor would claim her as his wife by virtue of the fact that she is carrying his child. The abductor may send elders to the girl’s parents to mediate and legitimize the marriage with offers of compensation in the forms of cash or a few heads of cattle. Though there are other means of “marriage by abduction” such as collusive elopement, they are far and few between. This barbaric practice act has been criminalized in Ethiopia but it still persists and thrives to this day because of official indifference.
Although there are no systematic epidemiological studies of the consequences of “marriage by abduction”, there is ample anecdotal evidence to show that the underage girls who are victimized by the practice suffer major psychological and physical trauma and undergo life-threatening obstetric health problems including fistula. They also face high risks of acquiring deadly sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS from the rape.
The making of “Schoolgirl Killer”: The real tragic story of Aberash Bekele
The tragic story of Aberash Bekele, a teenage victim of “marriage by abduction” in Ethiopia, was told to a global audience in a 1999 documentary “Schoolgirl Killer” [click here to see the full 50-minute documentary]). Charlotte Metcalfe, the director of the documentary said the decision to make “Schoolgirl Killer” came about fortuitously. In 1996, Metcalfe made a film about “child brides in Bahir Dar [Ethiopia] working closely with Original Georgis at the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyer’s Association in Addis Ababa [EWLA].” As she describes it, she “attended a four-year-old’s wedding (during which I filmed a distressing scene of the small child bride crying uncontrollably) and followed the nuptials of 11-year-old Nibret.” That documentary was “Young Wives’ Tales”, commissioned by the United Nations Fund for Population and won a UNICEF award.
Metcalfe became aware of Aberash’s case when she saw Aberash’s photograph in the office of EWLA in Addis Ababa. Metcalfe subsequently met Aberash, and after long discussions Aberash agreed to take part in a documentary. “I then went back to the UK to raise the money to make it. On board were Brian Woods, the multi-award-winning film-maker at True Vision [a British television, film and documentary production company that has won numerous international awards for its human rights-related films] as producer and David Pearson, Commissioning Editor at the BBC’s renowned Under The Sun,” said Metcalfe.
“Schoolgirl Killer” is at once gripping, engaging, mesmerizing, captivating, dispassionate and compassionate. Metcalfe is a consummate documentarian who is able to tell the tragic story of “marriage by abduction” with sensitivity, subtlety, sympathy and compassion. Metcalfe demonstrates her consummate craftsmanship as a documentarian by simply setting the stage for the various protagonists — Aberash, her parents and siblings, the parents of Aberash’s abductor, community elders, the lawyers, judges — to tell their story directly to the viewer. Metcalfe rolls the camera as the tragic story of the institution of “marriage by abduction” is told from a variety of perspectives. Indeed, it seems that the various protagonists in the story are directing the film as Metcalfe held the camera. She does not editorialize or advocate and is not even judgmental, which is extraordinarily difficult not to be under the circumstances. That style of film-making is what makes documentary powerfully persuasive, provocative and even shocking to the conscience.
After watching the film, the viewer is challenged to react; but how does one react to a tragedy whose origins are lost in the fog of history and tradition but must be stopped before it replants its virus and destroy the coming generations of young Ethiopian girls and women? My reaction to “Schoolgirl Killer” was outrage against that institution as a monumental violation of human rights followed by a commitment to campaign for its eradication from the face of the earth. I do not overestimate myself. As Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund said, “You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.”
Metcalfe is “delighted that Aberash’s story has gained worldwide attention” and turned into a “a major movie [winning] great acclaim and prizes at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals.” But she is “saddened that there seems to be squabbling over who ‘owns’ the story.” Metcalfe “deeply believes that the story told in Difret is primarily Aberash’s story” and that any promises of financial compensation made to her should be honored. “After all, it was her courage and astonishing resilience at such a young age that makes the story so compelling.”
Metcalfe also noted that it is “wrong not to credit Schoolgirl Killer with bringing [Aberash’s] story to the public’s attention 15 years ago… The production team and I worked very hard to turn this story into a film that we remain very proud of and we would appreciate being credited for forming the foundation for the story that Difret is based on.”
It is regrettable “Schoolgirl Killer” has not received the credit and acclaim it deserved in Ethiopia and throughout Africa. In my view, the documentary stands as an enduring and vital contribution to the cause of women’s human rights in Africa and elsewhere in the world.
The “schoolgirl killer”: Aberash’s Story
Aberash’s story takes place in the town of Asela, the regional capital of Arsi, some 165 km away from the capital Addis Ababa. (But it could have taken place just as easily and as flagrantly in any other part of Ethiopia, including a few kilometers outside the capital.) Aberash is walking home from school with her friends one day when she is corralled by a seven-man group of horsemen led by Gemechu Kebede, a 29-year old man hunting for a wife. Gemechu and his friends snatch Aberash and spirit her away to Gemechu’s family hut on the outskirts of the village where she is held captive. As Aberash describes it, it was as though she had come face to face with the “Seven Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. Her account of her ordeal is so nightmarish one could only imagine it happening in the days of the proverbial Caveman who would hunt down the female of his choice, slug her over the head with a club, drag her by the hair to the cave, rape her and emerge triumphantly beating his chest and announcing to the applause of fellow Cavemen that he has finally bagged his own Ms. Cavewoman.
In “The Schoolgirl Killer”, Aberash described her abduction with frightening detail:
Seven horsemen rode up and abducted me. They beat me up using whips. I and my friends were screaming and crying. They forced me over the back of a horse. I fell off three times. They dragged me here and there and eventually we reached the abductor’s family home…
Gemechu returned in the night and brutalized Aberash:
He hit me about the face, [and I] nearly lost my consciousness. He was such a huge man, I could not push him away. He forced my legs apart. He beat me senseless and took my virginity. After a while all of the men returned. They say I was bleeding and so gave me a clean place to sit. Then I realized the man who raped me was to be my so-called husband.
The morning after the rape, Gemechu gave Aberash a cup of coffee, mocked her as a “country girl” and left as his friends kept guard over her. Aberash saw a gun unattended in the corner as her guards chatted away. She stealthily grabbed the gun and ran off into a maize field. Gemechu suddenly appeared and followed Aberash in hot pursuit. He approached her menacingly. She warned him “not to come any closer.” He ignored her warning and kept on moving forward. “I’m not going to tell you again”, she warned him loudly. He did not believe she could pull the trigger. Aberash fired two rounds into the air from the AK-47. Gemechu was undeterred. He kept coming closer. She lowered the gun and fired. Gemechu dropped dead bleating out his last words, “She’s hit me.” Local militiamen heard the shots and rushed to the scene as Gemechu’s friends tried to avenge the death of their friend by slitting Aberash’s throat on the spot. She was arrested and taken to the police station and later charged with murder.
Aberash defiantly asserted self-defense against the charge of murder:
I don’t think myself as having killed anyone when I think of my suffering. The way I see it, all I did was kill my enemy. I did not feel sorry for him as I would for anyone else. I could have been killed myself.
The story of Gemechu’s parents
Gemechu’s crestfallen parents saw nothing wrong in Aberash’s abduction and rape. They were themselves unwitting victims of an evil cultural practice. To them, what their son had done to Aberash was perfectly normal and a well-accepted social practice going back for generations. They could not understand why Aberash does not graciously accept her abduction and rape and simply live with it as have thousands of girls before her. Gemechu’s father wanted vengeance exacted on Aberash for killing his son:
She is the killer of the son who was so good to me. She stole our means of survival. He abducted her for marriage… not to be killed by her… She’s done us no good. She has given us grief forever… She is the murderer of my son. She could have been my daughter-in-law or the mother of my grandchildren. That is what she was meant to be… but now she is just my son’s murderer. It is unheard of for a wife to murder her husband.
Gemechu’s mother also saw nothing improper in what her son had done by following tradition, although she was saddened by the course of events:
My son did nothing unusual. Many people marry through abduction… There are a lot of women who have good lives and who go on to have many children after getting married by abduction… I arranged for marriage for him for the price of an ox but he said he wanted a three oxen wedding with important friends from Addis. He would have had a beautiful life but his friends here misled him. I don’t know if the girl wanted him or not. I didn’t want any of this to happen. It ruined all our lives.
The story of the Aberash’s parents
Aberash’s parents were undergoing the tragedy of “marriage by abduction” for the second time. Their eldest daughter Mestawot was a victim of marriage by abduction a few years earlier. A despondent and tormented man, Aberash’s father bemoaned his daughter’s fate:
In our [part] of the country when a woman kills a man, she has to go across the river and live far away. Let her live the elders decreed. It saddens us but we are glad she is alive…
Aberash’s mother explained the hardship her family faced as a result of her daughter’s abduction:
We had to settle our cattle to pay for the offense. We had to borrow money from our relatives…When Mestawot was abducted, her father took a knife and went to try to save her. I followed him because I was scared they’d kill him. Had he arrived on the scene, he could have been killed or killed them. Instead of people dying, we left Mestawot to her abductor because we did not want any deaths.
The elders’ story
For the community elders who mediated the case between the families, the issue was a done deal. They had issued their final ruling and the matter was closed. One of the elders explained:
After the death of the abductor we intervened. We told the families, “He is dead, so you must reconcile. We told the victim’s family they had to compromise. We want the court to set her free. It should not have gone to court. We closed the case. It is finished… finished.
The story of Mestawot (Aberash’s older sister)
Mestawot was “tipped” to run in the Olympics for Ethiopia. She was the childhood friend of Derartu Tulu, the first black African woman to win a gold medal in the 10,000m event at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. Mestawot was a local track star and had won numerous medals. After she was abducted, she bore 4 children to her abductor; and with her dreams shattered, she eked out a living selling local brew in a ramshackle shanty. Her abductor-husband is the son of one of the elders who mediated in Aberash’s case. Mestawot reminisced:
I dreamt of being a champion. I used to come in first and win medals. I trained hard to improve my long distance running. I loved sport but when I was abducted, I had to give it up…
… When I look at the men around here, most of them don’t care about improving their lives. All that interests them is abducting someone’s daughter to become their so-called wife. What these men do makes me so angry.
In the end, Mestawot left her four children and so-called husband and disappeared!
The story of Mulatua (Aberash’s youngest sister)
Mulatua was terrified that the fate of her sisters would inevitably fall upon her. She was resigned to it.
I think what happened to Aberash will happen to me soon. I have always been terrified since Aberash was abducted. I can’t even go to the country side on my own. I am always scared when I go to school or to market…
… I have no hope at all. All I can do is hide at home… and I won’t be able to finish school… I have nowhere else to go… so all I can do is wait to be abducted…
The story of Mestawot’s abductor-husband
Mestawot’s abductor-husband did not think “marriage by abduction” was such a big deal. It is something all macho young men in his community do, indeed are expected to do. Abduction is also a way of showing the woman who is in charge. He explained:
Men abduct women when they fall in love. For example, I abducted Mestawot. For one thing, I love her, not because her parents agreed fully. My family told me to get married elsewhere and arranged for it, but I was young and pushed. I decided to show her who was boss. I was scared someone else would grab her. I didn’t want to miss out. I kidnapped her and took her virginity. The next day the money was sent to her family and mediators began arranging our wedding. In the meantime she got pregnant. Now we have four children and we are doing fine.
The lawyers’ story
Aberash’s defense lawyer, Meaza Ashenafi, had set up the ELWA a few years earlier to protect women from exploitation and abuse. She explained,
We knew about Aberash because it was publicized… and we decided to represent [Aberash] in the case because it was very symbolic in that it was about a revolution against the culture because abduction is considered as one of the ways of executing a marriage. So Aberash was the first to challenge this violence…
… It is not easy to get witnesses because the community will not cooperate to testify against this type of crime. But since we have the law, we’ll keep on trying… One thing I told the police was that if you can’t discharge your obligation… and make sure the laws are implemented, then you should be resigning. They can’t give an excuse not to do their job.
Daniel Bekele is a young lawyer who volunteered to work with EWLA in the investigation and prosecution of “marriage by abduction” cases. Daniel worked closely with the families in the village and pursued the investigation of the abduction of a young woman named Sewnet about the time Aberash’s case was unfolding. Daniel is the current Executive Director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, where he oversees a global staff and supervises research and advocacy. (It was my great pleasure to champion the cause of Daniel and Netsanet Demessie in 2007 when they were themselves “abducted” by the regime in Ethiopia on bogus charges of “offenses against the state” (See my commentary “Monkey Trial in Kangaroo Kourt…”. It is a great loss for Ethiopia not to have a brilliant and dedicated young lawyer like Daniel working in the cause of human rights today in that country. I comfort myself with the thought that Ethiopia’s loss is Africa’s gain.)
In Sewnet’s case, the police did a very limited thing. And once such an abduction has taken place, because there is this traditional way of dealing with this problem and reconciliation being made to the woman being forced to continue with the marriage, there is a reluctance of law enforcement officers to involve themselves in these cases. Like Aberash’s case, there were more than five accomplices who were part of the abduction process [of Sewnet] who have not been prosecuted so far.
The judges’ story
Two years after the incident, a three judge panel rendered its verdict. Aberash was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. As one of the judges read from the bench:
In October 1996, the defendant was on her way home when Gemechu Kebede with some others abducted her. He took her virginity by force the same night… In order to save her life, she shot and killed him…
… We find that the evidence of the defense and the prosecution corresponds. The deceased used force to harm the defendant. His actions violated the law. The action [the defendant] took was the only course you had to defend yourself. You will not be convicted for what you did. The court sets you free.
The untold story of “marriage by abduction”
Why does the odious institution of “marriage by abduction” persist and thrive today in Ethiopia? That is the million dollar question.
The regime is fully aware of the problem of marriage by abduction, child brides and the rest of it. The regime knows that practice is degrading, traumatizing and dehumanizing not only to women in general but to the most vulnerable members of Ethiopian society, rural underage girls. The regime knows the practice is condemned by international human rights law. Ironically, the regime also proclaims loudly that women are its political “backbone”. In 2010, the late Meles Zenawi, in a “victory” speech celebrating his 99.6 percent win in the May 2010 “election”, expressed “boundless” admiration and gratitude to women for ensuring the total victory of his party. He said, “… We also offer our thanks to the real backbone of our organization, the women of Ethiopia who are committed to our struggle due to their realization of our track record on gender equality and who want to forge ahead on this path of peace, development and democratization. Our admiration to the women of Ethiopia is indeed boundless!” How can any regime let such a barbaric crime continue to be committed to its political “backbone” as we speak?
The practice of marriage by abduction and child marriages occur daily in various parts of Ethiopia. There is cumulative anecdotal evidence of the occurrence of such practices just in the past few months. There are few empirical or systematic studies documenting the scope and magnitude of the problem. But there is sufficient evidence to support swift policy actions and decisive law enforcement intervention to halt the practice or at least significantly reduce it. A 2004, Population Council analysis indicated, “Ethiopia is the site of some of the most abusive marital practices, such as marriage by abduction and forced unions between cousins (abusuma).” A 2005 study of “Harmful Traditional Practices in Ethiopia”, similarly reported, “marriage by abduction is prevalent in Ethiopia. According to the base line survey for more than 50% of young girls in the community marriage occurs by abduction. Its prevalence is also high in regions like Oromia and SNNPR.” According to a United Nation’s 2009 study, in Ethiopia “the prevalence of marriage by abduction is as high as 92 per cent in Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR), with a national average of 69 percent.” It should be stressed that the problems of “marriage by abduction” and “child brides” are not limited to one area or region in Ethiopia; they occur throughout many rural communities.
What is most difficult to understand is the fact that the regime has all of the necessary resources to protect the rights of victims of “marriage by abduction”. It has clear and unambiguous laws on rape and abduction on the books. It has swarms of policemen, militiamen, judges and prosecutors throughout the countryside who could enforce the law and arrest abductors and rapists of underage girls. In fact, the very same policemen, militiamen, prosecutors and judges can swing into action in a New York minute to jack up anyone suspected of opposition to the regime. But they are entirely powerless to go after child rapists and abductors!?
What is also puzzling is the fact that the policemen who saved Aberash from lynching by arresting and charging her with murder did nothing to charge Gemechu’s accomplices. When attorney Daniel Bekele was investigating the abduction of Sewnet during the pendency of Aberash’s case, he was able to prod the local policemen to launch and pursue an investigation. The police were manifestly reluctant to do it, and probably would not have but for Metcalfe’s unblinking camera. The fact of the matter is that the regime can string up a bunch of independent journalists and bloggers in a jiffy, but it cannot arrest and prosecute organized local thugs who commit acts of barbarity and brutality on underage girls for years? The regime can spend millions of dollars to choke the internet, jam radio and satellite communications from broadcasting into the country but cannot spend a few dollars for education and awareness campaigns to break the vicious cycle of marriage by abduction? The regime receives millions of dollars for the eradication of “harmful social practices” from Western donors. What happened to that money? Clearly, for the regime, it is not a matter of lacking the means and resources to aggressively combat the institution of marriage by abduction.
So, what is the problem? Why is the regime in Ethiopia standing blindfolded and with folded arms in the face of such barbaric and illegal practice? Is the regime simply ignoring the problem out of depraved indifference? Is it sheer incompetence? Is it part of the regime’s broader and calculated long-term program of debilitating local communities to facilitate greater control over them? Is it lack of political will? Political expediency not to offend local leaders where such practices are common? Is the regime simply overwhelmed by the entrenched nature of the tradition and institutions that sustain such brutality against young girls? Is it patriarchal contempt for women? Women are not valued? Could it be that underage girls are viewed as third class citizens? Is it because young girls are not a voting constituency? Is it lack of resources? Is it fear of local backlash? Is it all or none of the above? WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
Meles Zenawi’s widow Azeb, according to Wikileaks, informed U.S. Under Secretary of State Maria Otero in February 2010 that “after four years of intensive engagement with community and religious leaders in the Afar region, her efforts on behalf of the Ethiopian Government (GoE) have prompted a significant reduction in Female Genital Mutilation…. Azeb noted that over the past four years, she has actively engaged to raise community awareness about, and stem the tide of, such practices. As a result of her active interventions, community discussions and debates, and advocacy, Azeb reported that Afari regional leaders have now declared FGM to be a “Haram,” or a forbidden practice.” I wish she could have done the same for “marriage by abduction”.
I find it difficult to comprehend why a regime that flaunts its economic, political and diplomatic prowess has been paralyzed from taking legal action mandated by its own constitution and proclamations to stop this barbaric social practice. Shouldn’t a regime that is building the largest dam in Africa on the Nile be able to unbuild a destructive social institution like “marriage by abduction”?
In the limited circumstances where the regime has sought to take action to stop harmful marriage practices, it has been half-hearted, inept and done as window dressing to please the donors and loaners than trying to root out the problem. Mekonnen and Harald in their study of official efforts taken to combat early marriages and related practices in Ethiopia argue: “The strategies and steps taken by the government may be one of the causes for people not supporting the new law. First and foremost, the campaign against early marriage lacks clarity… It appears to lack a proper planning and execution strategy. One can even assume once the government included the issue of early marriage in the family law as a result of pressures from various political and civic groups…”
The imperative to prosecute abductors and rapists
Article 35 of the Ethiopian Constitution guarantees, “Women have equal rights with men in marriage as prescribed by this Constitution.” Article 34 mandates, “…. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” Article 6 of the Revised Family Code of 2000 declares, “A valid marriage shall take place only when the spouses have given their free and full consent.” Article 7 further provides, “Neither a man nor a woman who has not attained the full age of eighteen years shall conclude marriage.” There is no constitutional or statutory basis that allows child rape in Ethiopia. But the institution of “marriage by abduction” and child brides” (which is plain old child rape) continues to thrive as regime leaders turn a blind eye.
The laws punishing rape and abduction are clear and straightforward. The word “rape” appears no less than 19 times and “abduction” 15 times in the Ethiopian Criminal Code [Proclamation No. 414/2004] not only as separate crimes but also as an aggravating circumstances. Article 587 (Abduction of a Woman) provides, “(1) Whoever with intent to marry a woman abducts her by violence, or commits such an act after having obtained her consent by intimidation, threat, trickery or deceit, is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from three years to ten years. (2) Where the act of abduction is accompanied by rape, the perpetrator shall be liable to the punishment prescribed for rape in this Code. (3) The conclusion of a marriage between the abductor and the abducted subsequent to the abduction shall not preclude criminal liability….
Article 620 (Rape) provides, “(1) Whoever compels a woman to submit to sexual intercourse outside wedlock, whether by the use of violence or grave intimidation,… is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from five years to fifteen years. (2) Where the crime is committed: a) on a young woman between thirteen and eighteen years of age;… or … d) by a number of men acting in concert, or by subjecting the victim to act of cruelty or sadism, the punishment shall be rigorous imprisonment from five years to twenty years. (3) Where the rape has caused grave physical or mental injury or death, the punishment shall be life imprisonment. (4) Where the rape is related to illegal restraint or abduction of the victim, or where communicable disease has been transmitted to her, the relevant provisions of this Code shall apply concurrently.”
What can’t the regime enforce its own laws and constitutional mandates? Does the regime know it has binding international legal obligations to protect the human rights of its citizens? Or do they still operate using the law of the jungle (bush) which creates the ideal conditions for Cavemen to flourish?
I know I have been talking to a brick wall about the rule of law for the past eight years. Perhaps my discussions on the subject may be beyond the grasp of those responsible for enforcing the law against rape and abduction. What they should grasp is the simple truth that a government that ignores, breaks and shows contempt for its own laws breeds reflexive contempt for the law per se among its citizens. A government teaches by its own examples, acts and omissions. Of course, all of that presupposes the existence of a government. Touché!?
Heroines, villains and justice
Aberash does not consider herself a “heroine” for defending against her rapist. She felt she had killed her enemy. She was just trying to save her life like any other person facing the same dangers. But Gemechu was not an “enemy”. He was also a tragic victim of a barbaric cultural institution. He did not know any better. He did what others his age do every day. But I believe Aberash is heroine not for picking up a gun and shooting the man who violated her, but for standing up for her human right not to be violated, to be respected. She is my heroine because she stood up not only for herself but for the dignity of all Ethiopian girls and women. She did what few others have done. Is it not true a nation is raped as millions stand watching on the sidelines every day?
Aberash did not feel full justice was done. In fact, she said the same injustice could easily be inflicted on her younger sister Mulatua and any other girl in the country. Her older sister Mestawot was a victim. Aberash cautioned, “No action was taken against the criminals. So they commit the same crimes again. They could abduct girls like me on the way to school or market. Nothing has been done to stop them. So they are encouraged to carry on abducting.” The ultimate (in)justice for Aberash was being an outcast and to be banished forever from her village of birth and family. She is victimized time and again while the law and the enforcers of the law stand on the sidelines turning a blind eye. Justice is blindfolded everywhere but in Ethiopia her eyes have been poked out and she is just blind.
My fellow lawyers, Maeza Ashenafi and Daniel Bekele, are also heroes. I only know of Maeza and her (what used to be) Association. In 2011, the regime revoked the licenses of EWLA and Ethiopian Human Rights Council for allegedly earning more than 90 percent of their budget from foreign sources. EWLA has faced harassment for years. What Maeza and her fellow lawyers have done for the human rights of women in Ethiopia is unprecedented and I hope a new generation of young women and men lawyers will follow in her footsteps.
All I can say about Daniel is, “Ethiopia’s loss is Africa’s gain”.
Gemechu, Aberash’s abductor and rapist, is really not a villain. Neither are his parents nor the friends who accompanied him to commit the dastardly act. They are all victims of ignorance and outdated cultural practices. If they had the education and awareness of the harmful nature of their practices, they would most likely refrain and reform their ways. The elders believe, in my view wrongly, that their intervention in “marriage by abduction” cases serves to bring social harmony and understanding. I do not doubt they are well-intentioned.
When Metcalfe made the documentary, some tried to criticize her as a “Westerner” (read “white”) trying to tell Africans how to live. It was the usual attack-the-messenger strategy. I believe Metcalfe is a silent heroine in Aberash’s story. By bringing the story to the court of world public opinion, Metcalfe shed much need light on an institution that should have been eradicated centuries ago like human sacrifices and ritual burning of widows on the pyres of their husbands (known as “sutee” in India).
I am very proud Ethiopian film maker, Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, for making an award-winning film that shed fresh light on this horrible cultural practice. He is also a hero for using his artistic talents to bring the barbaric practice to the attention to a new generation of Ethiopians. His film challenges them to get involved and do something to protect the human rights of their less fortunate sisters.
A plea to de-institutionalize the institution of elder mediation in “marriage by abduction”
There are three villains in the story of “marriage by abduction” in Ethiopia: the institution itself, those with the power to de-institutionalize the evil institution but for whatever reason choose not to and the so-called elders who mediate such crimes. There is little I wish to add at this time about the dereliction of duty of a villainous regime that flagrantly disregards the constitutional and legal rights of millions of citizens by tolerating the barbaric practice.
I believe the silent and well-disguised villain in the crime of “marriage by abduction” is the institution of elder mediation itself. The elders are touted to be creators and balancers of community harmony and reconciliation in “marriages by abduction”. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my view, they are actually unwitting co-conspirators, protectors and silent accomplices of the men who engage in “marriage by abduction” with impunity. The declared aim of the elders is to reconcile the families of the abductor and underage girl so that things will not get out of hand. In fact, the elders end up legitimizing and institutionalizing “marriage by abduction” and shielding the abductor from criminal prosecution. There are a few things that need to be underscored about elder mediation in cases of “marriage by abduction”: They are all men, often older men in the community who may have engaged in the practice themselves in their younger years. They are completely desensitized to the practice because they see the practice happening every day. As a matter of cultural expectation and personal belief, the elders see nothing fundamentally wrong with “marriage by abduction”.
It is also important to understand that the elders are not particularly concerned about the welfare, well-being or human rights of the victimized girl. They do not intervene to give the girl relief or justice, but to buy her silence by paying for her parents’ silence. They do not approach the victimized girl and seek her input or ask her if she prefers monetary compensation or prosecution of her assailant. The elders offer the girl nothing, not even hope. She is consigned to her fate of becoming a sexual slave, housekeeper and baby factory for her abductor. The compensation the elders proffer is to her parents, not to the girl. They don’t even ask her how much she feels she is worth. Would she trade her life and humanity for two oxen, or five sheep and two goats? What is her pleasure? But she is ultimately her parents’ property.
The elders do not perceive the victimized girl as a human with rights; for them she is quintessentially the property of her parents over which they can negotiate. The elders in effect commoditize the victimized girl in their mediation efforts. Their real job is not “mediation” but putting a price on the girl’s head and determine her “fair market value”. For the elders, the girl’s value is always the equivalent value of a certain number of cattle or cash amount. That is all a girl is worth in marriage by abduction. The society does not view her as a human being but as a humanized heifer.
In my view, the whole elder mediation institution is intended to perpetuate and legitimize the vicious cycle of “marriage by abduction” and victimization of the girl by depriving her of options available to her under the law. The institution of elders not only legitimizes the abduction and rape of the girl, it also victimizes her again by forcing her to accept the crimes committed against her without complaint and preferably with grace. The institution of elders also victimizes the law and justice itself. When the police are aware that elders are involved in mediating the “marriage by abduction” they turn a blind eye. (There have also been instances where policemen themselves have engaged in “marriage by abduction”). It is also not uncommon for the abductor’s family or the elders to pay bribes to the police to look the other way. The institution of elders in cases of “mariages by abduction” should be outlawed.
What could happen in the absence of mediation/intervention by elders? What could happen if the institution of elders in “marriage by abduction” were to be eliminated? The parents of the underage girl would have no choice but to report the crime to the police and insist on criminal prosecution. That is exactly what they would do if someone robbed of their property, but not their daughter? Prosecution could result in conviction and a long prison term under the law. Proving such cases should not be difficult. The victim will testify and identify her abductor and rapist. The elders by intervening shortly after the commission of the crime in effect obstruct and thwart the course of justice.
In short, I believe the institution of elders in “forced marriages” is a core part of the problem and not the solution as it is perceived to be. I stand by the essential truth declared by Mestawot, Aberash’s older sister: “I think men will only change if the law on abduction is strictly enforced. If the law continues to be lax, men will be out of control forever.”Regardless of what the elders do, I believe the criminals who commit “marriage by abduction” should be relentlessly pursued and prosecuted as per Art. 587 (3), “The conclusion of a marriage between the abductor and the abducted subsequent to the abduction shall not preclude criminal liability….”
Marriage by abduction is not a problem unique to Ethiopia. It occurs in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It must be fought wherever it rears its ugly head. It is a vile crime against womanity (humanity) that the entire human race should stand together and collectively condemn. The world in the 21st Century does not accept human sacrifices as part of religious rituals nor does it approve of the burning of a widow on the pyre of her dead husband. Killing baby girls born to poor rural families is vigorously condemned. There are worldwide campaigns against sexual slavery. Why should the world accept “marriage by abduction” of ten, twelve, fourteen and sixteen year old girls today in Ethiopia? Injustice tolerated is justice abducted and raped.
Metcalfe filmed “Schoolgirl Killer” in 1999 in Ethiopia, but the institution of “marriage by abduction” thrives with impunity today. The real solution to the problem of “marriage by abduction” and child brides” cannot come from government but civil society institutions engaged in community education and action. That will be the next topic in my crusade against “marriage by abduction.”
“I think men will only change if the law on abduction is strictly enforced. If the law continues to be lax, men will be out of control forever.” Mestawot Bekele (older sister of Aberash Bekele)
Help stop crimes against womanity in Ethiopia!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: