Ethiopian Rape Victim Pits Law Against Culture
'Maybe They Were Just in Love'
At the courthouse in Asela, the regional capital, 100 miles north of Woineshet's village, a swarm of villagers, some holding frayed paperwork, milled around one day recently in a series of dark rooms in a complex of concrete and corrugated metal buildings set under the misty hills of the Bale Mountains.
Woineshet's evidence was taken to this court, which handles 4,000 cases a year with one computer, four judges and 10 lawyers, most of whom have had a few months of training after high school. On this day, Tolera Bekissa, the court's president, thumbed through a thick stack of Woineshet's files, which at times misspelled her name and got her age wrong. He said the vague notes from the health center about her virginity were used against her in court.
Ellen Alem, a legal aid service coordinator with the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, said it is almost impossible to bring a rape case to court in rural areas when the victim's virginity is questioned. She is lobbying the government to specify in the law that non-virgins can also be victims of rape and that their cases should be taken seriously.
"We have a problem here," said Bekissa, the court's president, rubbing his eyes and leaning back in his chair. "The trouble is, this type of crime happens secretly. You can't gain evidence about her virginity so easily."
Bekissa called in Judge Biyo Ukie, who had helped make the decision to allow the accused assailant out on bail.
"I don't think she was abducted or raped," said Ukie, rocking in his chair, his arms folded, and staring at the floor. "The health report did not specify that she was a fresh virgin. No one wants to rape anyone who is not a virgin. Maybe they were just in love. This case has no evidence."
Even Woineshet's state-appointed lawyer, Srat Tolch, expressed doubt about the rape charge. "I think Woineshet was like, 'Please rape me.' Maybe he couldn't afford the dowry and they wanted to be together without a formal marriage," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "Culturally, no one rapes a non-virgin. So unless we can prove for sure she was a virgin until the time of the rape, there is reasonable doubt and the man should just be left alone."
A Policeman 'Snapped'
In Abadjema, a poverty-stricken village where policing is done without cars, with little pay and scant training, rape is often a disregarded crime.
There are no women on the police force in the village. In sexual violence cases, some of the people meant to enforce laws are skittish about going after the accused because they may be friends with the men. Some officers in the police department said in interviews that prosecuting the case would be uncomfortable for the community and that the matter should be forgotten. Relatives of the accused came by, slapping backs and offering cash, the officers said.
But Daweda Hayea, a lanky police officer and the lead investigator on the case, rejected appeals by relatives of the accused assailant to drop the case. He had already taken statements from farmers who witnessed Woineshet's race through their fields after the second rape. Hayea took copious notes. Their descriptions of a terrified girl, a girl he knew as a quiet student, made him feel queasy.
"Something inside of me snapped," he said, as he stared out a smudged window in the department's dark mud-and-stick complex of buildings.
"I thought, after seeing this young girl run through the hills like an animal running from a hyena, this man is living here, among us, and nobody cares. Are our morals dead?" said Hayea, who hid the girl in his house after she was raped the second time. "She was crying too much. She had scratches everywhere. I was so angry. Always, he beat her. Always, without clothes."
The police hired a car to drive her to the health clinic in Abomsa this time.
She went to her grandmother's house to rest, but the abductor's family came and beat Woineshet after the second assault. They demanded she sign the marriage contract, Woineshet said. They forced an indecipherable signature out of her and left.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company