One day in early October, Hanna Lalango, 16, did not return from school to her home in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, at the usual time. Her father Lalongo Hayesso was worried about his youngest daughter.
“We waited for her at her usual time … but we had to wait for 11 days to hear that she had been abandoned on the street. She was incapacitated and couldn’t even get up,” said Hayesso. His daughter had been abducted, gang-raped and left for dead. Hanna was not able to get to hospital until 12 days after her attack, where she was treated for traumatic gynaecological fistula and other injuries. She died on 1 November.
Sexual violence against women in Ethiopia is relatively common. Research from 2012 found that “rape is undoubtedly one of the rampant crimes in Ethiopia”, and linked its prevalence to male chauvinist culture, legal loopholes, the inefficiency of different agencies in the criminal justice system, and “a deep-seated culture of silence”. In October 2011, an Ethiopian Airlines flight attendant named Aberash Hailay lost her eyesight after her ex-husband, Fisseha, stabbed her in both eyes with a sharp knife. And there’s the story of Frehiwot Tadesse, a mother of two, who was shot several times by her ex-husband in a broad daylight in Addis. Since the first reported case involving Kamilat Mehdi and her ex-boyfriend, acid attacks against women have also shown a disturbing increase.
The prevalence of sexual abuse violence and the inadequacy of the response to it are very much connected to gender inequality in Ethiopia. Of the 142 countries ranked in the 2014 Gender Gap Index, Ethiopia ranks 127th, making almost no noticeable progress in the past nine years. But the question being asked now is whether sexual violence against women is actually rising, or whether we are just being made more aware of it? And why is no one doing anything about it?
The first question is difficult to answer as many women do not come forward to report attacks. Only the most horrific cases, such as those mentioned above, are reported in the media. Even then, interest among journalists is low. Hanna’s name was first mentioned in the Ethiopian Reporter (Amharic edition) 15 days after her death, replete with inaccuracies such as an incorrect date of when she was attacked.
On the other hand, the response to such attacks on social media has been overwhelming. Using Facebook and Twitter, Ethiopians have the freedom to curate any information and share it with whomever they want, with the result that stories such as Hanna’s are getting told. The online campaign, #JusticeForHanna, is a good example of how Ethiopians are taking to the social networks to raise awareness of failings in their society.
Despite the outcry on social media, the ministry of women, children and youth affairs has remained almost completely silent. Minister Zenebu Tadesse called Hanna’s attack “barbaric and heartbreaking” – and alluded to the endemic nature of violence against Ethiopian women by saying “several other Hannas suffer from similar violent sexual harassment” – but no action was taken.
With little support from the political or legal system, women who have been victims of violence turn to NGOs. However the effectiveness of these organisations is limited by the state. The 2009 Ethiopian Charities and Societies Proclamation (pdf) explicitly forbids Ethiopian charities or societies from receiving more than 10% of their funding from a foreign source.
This is significant because many of the organisations that advocate for causes such as human rights and gender equality rely on international funding to operate.
As a result, the move to deny them foreign funding has crippled many women’s rights organisations. The influential Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA), for example, was forced to cut its staff by 70% between 2010-2011. A study by Amnesty International found that the EWLA has “effectively ceased to function, with the exception of volunteers providing a small amount of free legal aid to women”.
The recent social media furore about gender-based violence is welcome, but briefly trending hashtags on Twitter will not address the underlying causes and many more Hannas will suffer humiliation, violence and even death. To prevent more of my sisters from falling victim to combat gender-based violence, we need:
• the government and community leaders to make public spaces safe for women and girls;
• the government to allocate funds and resources to strengthen civil society;
• families and communities to stop defending perpetrators and silencing victims’ voices;
• schools to teach students about gender-based violence;
• international organisations to include men to bring collective solution to gender inequality.
Although just a start, the #JusticeForHanna campaign shows that the will to stop violence can be found within our own community. That is a ray of hope that we can build a just and equal society.