Kidnapped, Raped, Forced to Marry: Justice at Last for an Ethiopian Teen, Women’s Voices For Change (March 16, 2016)

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Kidnapped, Raped, Forced to Marry: Justice at Last for an Ethiopian Teen (In the News)

March 16, 2016 by 

“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 girl protected from violence.” So writes Faiza Jama Mohamed, the Africa director of Equality Now, the nonprofit organization that works to change sexist laws in countries around the world. She is celebrating a precedent-setting ruling of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights—a ruling that holds accountable the perpetrators of the abduction and rape of a young girl, Woineshet Zebene Negash. It took 15 years for the case to be resolved.

The announcement came, coincidentally, just a week before the convening of the 60th Session of theUnited Nations Commission of the Status of Women, which is meeting in New York until March 24. It was at the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing in 1995, that Hillary Rodham Clinton famously declared that “human rights are women’s rights—and women’s rights are human rights.” (How dismaying, that such an assertion should be considered noteworthy!)

Woineshet was only 13 in 2001 when Aberew Jemma Negussie and a group of accomplices broke into her house late at night, carried her away, and raped her, Faiza Mohamed told Thomson Reuters Foundation News. When her teachers reported the rape, the police rescued her and arrested Negussie. However, let out on bail some weeks later, he “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 some parts of Ethiopia, abduction/rape is tolerated as a means for a man to force a woman into marriage.)  

In 2003, the perpetrator was sentenced to ten years without parole for abduction and rape, and his four accomplices sentenced to eight years each. Incredibly, however, they appealed on the ground that this 13-year-old could not have been raped. “No one would want to rape a girl who is not a virgin. The case was dismissed . . . according to reports, the prosecutor in the case ignored the law by saying that Woineshet would have to prove she was a virgin before the rape – otherwise the perpetrators should be set free.”

After this dismissal, pressure from Equality Now and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association caused Ethiopia to change its Penal Code, which had previously exempted rapists from punishment if they married their victims.

In 2007, Eqauality Now 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 prevail for her. Nine years later, the commission handed down its verdict: Ethiopia, aware of the rape/marriage custom, had not protected this young teen from violence; therefore, “she should be compensated with $150,000 and  Ethiopia should implement ‘escalated and targeted measures to deal with ‘marriage’ by abduction and rape.” The commission also mandated that Ethiopia establish a functioning legal system protecting the rights of all people, particularly girls.

Will Ethiopia pay the money? It cannot be forced to do so, but Equality Now’s global executive director, Yasmeen Hassan, is hopeful: She told the BBC World Service, “Most governments do not like looking bad in regional eyes and in international eyes, and once they sign a treaty they take it seriously.” As for the enormous difficulty of changing a noxious cultural custom like abduction/forced marriage, she says, “Absolutely [the ruling] will have an impact. What I see around the world is that governments do not do anything about these kinds of issues because it is ‘cultural’, it is not their responsibility, but we have seen that whenever governments have stepped in and put a law against the practice, cultural change then happens.”