Woineshet is now 27 and living in relative safety. This week's ruling means that she can finally complete the horrific chapter in her life and move on in the knowledge that she has helped to make life better for future generations of Ethiopian women and girls.
NAIROBI - Woineshet Zebene Negash was 13 in March 2001, when Aberew Jemma Negussie and a group of accomplices broke into her house late at night, carried her away and raped her.
After her teachers reported the incident to the police, Woineshet was rescued and her rapist was arrested. However, a few days later, her story was to get even more complicated and distressing. Having been released by police on bail, Negussie abducted her again and hid her in his brother's house. She was held there until she managed to escape more than a month later, but only after she was forced to scrawl her name on a piece of paper – a document which would later be used against her in court as a supposed “marriage contract”.
In parts of Ethiopia, abduction continues to be used to force a girl or woman into marriage. The girl is commonly abducted by a group of men and then raped by the man who wants to marry her. He usually cannot afford her dowry or ‘bride price’. The next day, the elders from the man's village “apologize” to the family of the girl and ask them to agree to the marriage. The family is forced to “consent” as a girl who has lost her virginity would be considered to be tarnished goods.
In July 2003, Negussie was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment without parole for abduction and rape. His four accomplices were also sentenced to 8 years each. This was the first Ethiopian case in which accomplices were also charged and convicted for abduction. Justice was finally served – or so we thought.
Later that year, the sentence was overturned by an appeals court and all five perpetrators were released. The court said that she could not have been raped –“nobody” would want to rape a girl who is not a virgin. The case was dismissed.
Incredibly, even Woineshet's own lawyer, who was appointed by the state, worked against her and ignored the law in her absence by saying she would have to prove she was a virgin before the rape – otherwise the perpetrators should be set free.
Under pressure from the Ethiopia Women Lawyers Association and international human rights organization, Equality Now, citing Woineshet’s case as an example of clear injustice, the Ethiopian state moved to change its Penal Code in 2004, which had previously included exemptions for abduction and rape during marriage. Stiffer penalties for rape were also introduced at the same time.
Since her perpetrators could not be re-tried within their own country and due to the extreme government restrictions on civil society organisations there, we decided to take the case further and pursue the entire Ethiopian government, which had violated numerous counts of both national and international law.
In 2007, we filed a complaint with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on behalf of Woineshet, calling on the Ethiopian government to ensure that justice prevails for Woineshet.
Nine years later – and 15 years since Woineshet was raped, some form of justice has finally been achieved. The African Commission has condemned Ethiopia for its refusal to protect her from violence and also on its inability to ensure a fair and transparent justice procedure. It has ruled that Woineshet should be compensated $150,000 and that Ethiopia should implement “escalated measures” to deal with marriage by abduction and rape.
Justice has come at a price. Her family members – still in Ethiopia, continue to received threats and are treated as outcasts in their own village. The Ethiopian state has failed them too.
Woineshet is now 27 and living in relative safety. Today’s ruling means that she can finally complete this horrific chapter in her life and move on in the knowledge that she has helped to make lives better for future generations of Ethiopian women and girls.
We can only hope that the message this unprecedented ruling sends will have a ripple effect at all levels of society. It has taken a decade and a half to reach a verdict in a case, which should have been very straightforward. The disposability of girls in Ethiopia and around the world needs to end. We cannot be free until every sexist Penal Code is changed and every single girl is protected from violence. It is up to Ethiopia to respond.
* Faiza Jama Mohamed is Director Africa Office, Equality Now.
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