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A 16-Year-Old's Death Is Forcing Ethiopia to Confront Its Sexual Violence Problem

Screenshot from Twitter, posted November 19, 2014, by Twitter user @YikunoMulugeta.

Screenshot from Twitter, posted November 19, 2014, by Twitter user @YikunoMulugeta.

Last year, on an October day like any other, Hanna Lalango was in a public mini-bus on her way home from school. Suddenly, one of the other passengers threatened her with a knife. Five men kidnapped the 16-year-old, taking her to a house belonging to one of them. Hanna was gang-raped and held in the house for several days. Afterwards, she was left in the street, severely injured. When she finally received treatment for her gynecological injuries, it was too late. She died on November 1, 2014.

Her tragic story was not mentioned in media until 15 days after her death. In fact, the brutal gang-rape might not have crossed the public's mind at all, if it was not for university lecturer and Yellow Movement AAU women rights activist Bléna Sahilu. Bléna stumbled across a brief report in a newspaper and decided to start the campaign #JusticeForHanna on Twitter. The Facebook page of the campaign states:

Seeking for an adequate punishment to all responsible for this heinous crime so that no other woman has to go through the same tragedy.

Soon after the launch of the campaign, the story went viral and #JusticeForHanna quickly became one of the top 15 trending hashtags in Africa in 2014.

Bléna described her motivation for starting the campaign:

What struck me and outraged me was the details of what happened to Hanna and how it was basically unnoticed by everyone, specially the media. I wanted to know more about her, about what happened and I wanted to see us speaking out against such acts of cruelty as a community. And we did.

The campaign has highlighted the issue of sexual violence and ignited debates on mainstream media and social media. In most cases, it has received a tremendous support from Ethiopians, although some commentators think that there might be other explanations for why women in Ethiopia are being exposed to violence.

For example, a commenter on Facebook wrote in Amharic asking if women expose themselves to violence because of the way they dress:

የሴቶቻችን ነገር

በደቦ ተደፍራ ለሞት የበቃችው ታዳጊ ወጣት መነሻ ሆና በፌስቡክ መንደር ውይይቱ መጦፉ ጥሩ ነገር ነው፡፡ ነገሩን ከረር አድርገውት ሁሉም ወንድ ደፋሪ ለማስመሰል የሚዳዳቸውን እንዳልሰማ አልፈነው፣ እግረመንገድ አለባበስ በራሱ ለጥቃት አያጋልጥምን የሚል ገራገር ጥያቄ ማንሳት ተገቢ ሆኖ አግኝቼዋለሁ፡፡
የአዲስአበባ ጎዳናዎችን ተመልከቱ፡፡ ስስ ቀሚስ አድርገው የውስጥ ሱሪያቸው ቀለም አፍጥጦ ወጪ ወራጁ (በተለይ ወንዶች) እንደጉድ የሚመለከቷቸው፤ እንደታቦት አጅበው የሚሸኟቸው ሴቶችን ማየት እንግዳነቱ ቀርቷል፡፡ ጡትም ተወጥሮ፣ ቅርጽ ተበጅቶለትና ተራቆቶ ማየት እንዲሁ፡፡ አንዳንዶቹ ከመቀመጫ በታች የሆነ ሱሪ አድርገው በተለይ ከታክሲ ሲወርዱ የመቀመጫቸውን ክፋይ ለመሸፈን ያችን ብጣቆ ሱሪ ሲጎትቱ ማየት የእለት ተዕለት ትዕይንት ሆኗል፡፡ ሴቶቹ ወደውና ፈቅደው ያደረጉትን ሱሪ በየታክሲው ላይ እርቃን ገላቸውን ለመሸፈን ትንቅንቅ ሲያደርጉ ስታይ ልብሱን ሽጉጥ ተደቅኖባቸው፣ ተገደው ያደረጉት ሊመስልህም ይችላል፡፡ የታይት ነገርማ አይነሳ!….የእድሜ ድንበር እንኳን ሳይበግረው አንዳንድ እናቶቻችንም ጭምር፣ በዕድሜም በኑሮም የረገበ ገላቸውን ውጥርጥር አድርገው ሽር ብትን ሲሉ ማየት በእጅጉ ያስገርማል፡፡
ሴቶች የፈለጉትን የመልበስ መብታቸውን የማከብር ቢሆንም እንዲህ እርቃን ሆነው ራሳቸውን ለጥቃት ማመቻቸታቸውን አልደግፍም፡፡ እናም ውድ እህቶቻችን አለባበሳችሁ ላይ ከጥቃት የመጠበቅ ጥንቃቄ ብታደርጉ፣ ራሳችሁን ብትጠብቁ?

The thing about our ladies [on our ladies].

The hot discussion on Facebook, taking the gang raped and murdered girl as a pretext, is a good thing, leaving the extremes that try to present all men as rapists aside. I, however, find it proper to raise this simple question: “Can not the way of dressing, in itself, expose one to violence?”

Look at the roads of Addis Ababa. It isn't rare to see ladies wearing see-through skirts, exposing the colors of their underwear, being stared at and followed by people passing by [especially men]. In the same manner it isn't rare to see breasts pushed up and exposed. It is an everyday scene to see some ladies wearing their trousers below their butt, struggling to pull up that small thing in order to cover their butt cracks, especially when they get out of a taxi. When you [a man] see the ladies struggling with their trousers [which they willingly have chosen to wear] trying to cover their naked body, you [a man] may think that they must have been at gunpoint and were forced to dress that way.

We better not raise the issue of tights. It is surprising to see people at all ages [including some of our mothers] tightening up their [due to life and age] stretched-out body.

Even if I accept the rights of ladies to wear whatever they like, I do not support [recommend] the idea of making themselves susceptible to violence by being naked like this. Therefore, our beloved sisters, please take care when you dress up so you do not expose yourself to violence. You can protect yourselves that way!

However, most people discussing the matter agree that the victim should not be blamed. In response to the above comment, Betty Negash wrote:

my friend, rape has nothing to do with how the women/girls dress. Rape is about POWER and the desire to have a complete control over others, which is a psychological problem by itself. you can check papers written by researchers (including male ones if you think the women can be biased on the subject) If you see the statistics in Ethiopia, many of the young girls and children are raped by a family member, a relative, an uncle etc. and most of the victims are literally children. Rape is also a result of pre-meditated , planned plot and not something that happens after a sudden sexual desire ( that supposedly get enticed by seeing a girl with mini-skirt). And finally, women have a right to dress in whatever way they wanted to dress. Trust me in developed countries like Britain, women go around town dressing almost underwear like clothes and rape is not as rampant as here, because people there are civilized and respect the rights of women and girls.

The #JusticeForHanna campaign has also inspired others to come forward with stories of own experiences. Commenters on social media agree that the violence no longer can be tolerated.

Antonio Mulatu pointed out that Hanna's case is a reflection of the experiences of lives of many women: 

Difret called for a swift legal action against the perpetrators:

Sam Rosmarin tweeted against the practice of “reconciliation”:

Blaming of the victim: Causes and effects

Article 35 of the Ethiopian constitution states:

Laws, customs and practices that oppress or cause bodily or mental harm to women are prohibited.

However, Hanna's case is not unique in Ethiopia.  According to a report by Sileshi G. Abeya, Mesganaw F. Afework and Alemayeh W. Yalew, intimate partner violence against women are among the highest in the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) interviewed 3,016 women in rural Ethiopia. Fifty-nine percent of women who were at some time partnered (meaning they had been married, lived with a man or had a regular sexual partner) had experienced sexual violence at some point in their life.

Ethiopia has one of the lowest performances in gender equality. The Gender Gap Index measures differences between men and women in the areas of health, education, economy and politics. In the 2014 Gender Gap Index, Ethiopia only ranks 127 out of 142 countries. 

Even though rape is common in Ethiopia, it is seldom talked about. According to WHO report, 39 percent of the women had never told anyone about the physical violence they had experienced.

Rediet Yibekal, research intern at the United Nations Development Programme and digital strategist, described the social context of  “rape culture” in Ethiopia:

The society focuses on educating young girls about safety while boys aren’t taught about rape and why it’s wrong. Society blames the rape victim, why and how she plays role in the process, and justifies the rapist’s action.” The perpetrator often go unpunished, and the victim fears not being taken seriously by police.

How the family and the rest of society views rape adds to the problem. Gender-based violence is many times “solved through family arbitration and socially sanctioned compensation for the victim’s family”. There is also the issue of blame shifting.

Ethiopian current affairs magazine Addis Standard noted that that when a story about sexual violence first becomes known, the perpetrator is blamed. However, after a while the blame shifts to the victim. People tries to justify the rape by saying that “the woman must have done or said something that made him rape her”. As a result, women do not go public with their experience.

Today, many women fears meeting the wrong person on the street. Many women fear that they one day will be humiliated by their loved one. They fear that their own family will turn their back against them. Ethiopia is in great need of change, because if change does not come — there will be many more Hannas out there. What happened to Hanna has sparked an outrage, and that is encouraging. People are no longer willing to tolerate what is happening. Rape and the justification of it needs to come to an end – because fear is not freedom.

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  • candiduscorvus

    It’s like Ethiopia is just now arriving at a point the USA was at in the 50’s or 60’s.

  • ettm

    Dear Melody, Thank you for this write-up.
    It is heart-breaking. But this is only the tip of iceberg.
    Ethiopia under the present rulers has turned into
    a hub for prostitution, human-trafficking, illegal
    child adoption [check the court case in Atlanta and North Carolina].
    The Ethiopian government simply could not
    provide education, employment, and livelihood despite

    its noise about 2-digit growth and peace and stability.
    Tens of thousands youths are fleeing the country because

    of the terrorizing politics and grim future. Over a million young women
    work as maids in the Middle East for less than 200 dollars a month; most of

    the money is taken up by recruiters, Ethiopian rulers, and Arab traders.
    This is all documented and publicly available. And the young women
    routinely raped by their employers; some end their lives; most

    choose to bear the abuse so as not to lose ’employment.’

    The US gov knows this and more is going on in the country.
    But it has chosen to side with the rulers and look the other way because
    Ethiopia is “key ally” to run errands in South Sudan, Somalia,
    and provide a Drone Base, refuge for Yemeni murderer Ali Abdullah and

    steal aid money. I don’t want to burden you with stories you can
    easily access.

    Melody, I know you earnestly seek some remedy regarding
    the story you wrote here. I also know you have other things to worry about.
    I appreciate what you did here in trying to awaken the public in whose
    name US foreign policy is implemented. I believe strongly an informed
    US public will press its leaders to act in a meaningful way than to

    let its prrecious tax dollars pilfered by tyrants who also

    brutalize their own citizens. Please keep up the good work.

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