One step forward, two steps back characterizes the “protection” of women in Ethiopia

Mekdes Fisseha Libasie

Sixteen-year-old Hanna Lalango was kidnapped as she was returning home from school on October 1, 2014. Her kidnappers gang raped her for several days before throwing her out on a street where, later, she was found unconscious. Hanna’s parents sought the best medical care they could afford to save her life. Unfortunately, she passed away on November 1, 2014. The Federal High Court of Ethiopia sentenced each of the suspects 17 years to life imprisonment.

In another case, Bemnet Geremew, a 28-year old lawyer from Addis Ababa, was strangled and beaten to death by her husband on the night of June 27, 2015. The two had been married for only two months. A few days after committing the crime, the husband handed in himself to the police. The case is still in the courts.

These two are among many high profile cases of violence against women that have prompted a social media outcry and significant activism. Unfortunately, the majority of violence against women crimes are either unreported to the police or receive insufficient attention from police or courts.

Violence against women is widespread in Ethiopia. A World Health Organization study found that almost 71 percent of Ethiopian women reported being subjected to physical/sexual violence by their intimate partners.[1]

A decade ago, Ethiopia underwent extensive legal reform in an attempt to harmonize its laws with its constitution. Accordingly, the 2005 Criminal Code of Ethiopia defines and carries stringent punishment for acts of violence against women. Book Five, Title I, Chapter 2 of this code includes list of punishable acts of violence against women and girls, including female genital mutilation and trafficking women. The revised federal and regional family laws have also brought provisions that better protect the rights of women in marriage.

Ethiopia has also ratified numerous international and regional conventions that proscribe acts and practices of violence against women, such as the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and is a signatory to the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol). The country has subscribed to a multitude of relevant international and regional consensus documents.

Despite these efforts in legal reform, acts of violence against women seem to be on the rise in Ethiopia. Proliferation of electronic or social media has helped expose some of these crimes that would otherwise be unreported. Every year thousands of young women are trafficked and subjected to labor and sexual exploitation. There is almost a total lack of state accountability when these crimes are committed. For instance, in September 2015 a 20-year-old university student was shot in cold blood and killed by an armed member of the federal police for simply failing to greet him as she walked by. No official apology was offered to her families and the public. The progress of the case is not yet announced.

The momentum of advocacy for legal reform and implementation that was being initiated and carried out by civil society organizations and the non-profit sector a decade ago has stagnated in recent years. Since the year 2010, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of non-governmental organizations working directly on women’s human rights. This phenomenon is primarily due to the civil society law that was issued in 2009 requiring all non-profit organizations to re-register as new organizations. Accordingly, charities and organizations are classified as under Ethiopian, Ethiopian-resident, and foreign. Ethiopian charities are those which source only up to 10 percent of their funds from foreign sources. In accordance to the proclamation, only these Ethiopian charities can engage in activities relating to “the advancement of human and democratic rights” and “the promotion of equality of …gender and religion.” Many organizations primarily funded by foreign sources failed to re-register foreseeing that they would not be able to bear financial burdens by using local sources. Those which have continued their human rights work are severely incapacitated as a result of financial constraints. It is extremely difficult to generate funds locally to fulfill the goals of these organizations. This law has also prevented the creation of potential human rights organizations that would work to protect women’s human rights. “One step ahead two steps back” can describe the momentum of women’s human rights in Ethiopia.

Regarding rights relating to violence against women, a state has duty to respect, protect, and fulfill. In this context, the Ethiopian state not only needs to respect and protect women’s rights, but it should also fulfill these rights. It also has an additional layer of obligation to create conducive atmosphere for local and international co-operation in the implementation of rights.

The causes of violence against women in Ethiopia emanate from deep-rooted discriminatory culture against women. It requires multi-sectoral efforts such as education, advocacy, and appropriate law enforcement. The state cannot do all these by itself. Therefore, it must amend restrictive laws, such as civil society law, to engage other actors to promote and protect women’s human rights. In lieu of that, the state tampers with the rights of women to be protected from acts and practices of violence.

[1] See WHO publication http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/ accessed on 11 November 2015

By: Attorney Mekdes Fisseha Libasie is an intern with The Advocates for Human Rights’ Women’s Human Rights Program. She has taught and practiced law in Ethiopia. Mekdes obtained her law degree from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. She also has LL.M degree in Public International Law from University of Oslo, Norway. Currently, she is finalizing a research degree at the University of Surrey, UK.

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