Ethiopian Rape Victim Pits Law Against Culture
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 7, 2004; Page A01
ABADJEMA, Ethiopia -- She rushed through the tangled brush of onion farms and up the knobby footpaths of her village. Her shirt was bloody, her clothes were torn and her thighs were bruised a deep shade of purple, recalled the villagers who were drawn by her screams.
Woineshet Zebene Negash, with a round face and a puff of thick brown hair, was running from her rapist.
She was abducted one night in March 2001 by four men who hacked down the front door of her home in the village of Abadjema with a machete. Police and witnesses said she was forced into a nearby shack by the men's leader and raped for two days. She was 13 years old.
When the police finally arrived, Woineshet took off running. The police, who say they have never seen a child covered in so much blood, arrested the suspect.
Woineshet's father, Zebene Negash, 49, who was working and living in Addis Ababa, the capital, went home, looked at his daughter and made a dramatic and unusual decision. For months, he had heard radio announcements and seen bus ads sponsored by the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association urging the prosecution of rape cases. Standing in the village square, his heart pounding, he vowed: This case will go to court.
But what happened next made him distrust not just justice, but his own common sense.
The accused, Aberew Jemma Negussie, was released on bail.
That same week, Negussie, a 20-year-old merchant, abducted Woineshet again, this time hiding her in his brother's house and raping her for 15 days. She escaped again, by running through the farms and through their village, again bruised, again bloody.
Even before a trial had started, the country's struggling justice system had already failed.
In the days and months after the attacks, Woineshet's journey took her from a poorly equipped one-room health center to a financially strapped police station to a cramped courtroom with reluctant judges. Her story was reconstructed though dozens of interviews with family members, friends and others familiar with her plight. Woineshet and her father consented to be identified by name.
The case opens a window on a struggle in Africa between deeply held rural and tribal traditions and a quest to establish internationally recognized legal standards in societies that have long been without them. The continent, along with Asia, has the highest rates of sexual violence in the world, according to a Global Forum for Health Research report issued earlier this year. But it is often so difficult to bring assailants to justice that victims rarely turn to the judicial system.
Yet Woineshet's example highlights an important moment of change here, as lawyers, police and family members struggle to overcome social taboos and establish a new pattern for investigating and prosecuting rape in Ethiopia.
Last year, Woineshet's abductor was taken to court a second time, convicted of rape and kidnapping and sentenced to 10 years in jail. But a judge released him after he had served just one month. Woineshet and her father, backed by the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association and Equality Now, an international women's rights group, are appealing the case to Ethiopia's highest court.
Woineshet's family comes from the Oromo tribe, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group. In the green hills of southern Ethiopia, the tribe's men hold a firm upper hand in society and women are often treated as servants. Marriage by abduction, a common practice, occurs when a man and his friends kidnap a woman or girl he has been watching, rapes her and then pressures her to sign a marriage contract.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company