More than 70 percent of Ethiopian women face physical and sexual violence
Hanna Lalango, 16, died on Nov. 1, from a brutal gang rape after five men kidnapped and held her captive for several days in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Hanna attended a private high school in the city’s Ayer Tena neighborhood.
On Oct. 1, the day of her kidnapping, Hanna, the youngest of six siblings, “complained about not feeling well” before she left for school. “She was a typical young girl … a timid and respectful child,” Hanna’s brother told Blen Sahilu, who first posted the story on Facebook, as part of the online #JusticeForHanna campaign. “She was really nice.”
Hanna reportedly left school around 4 p.m. local time and got on a taxi that already had a couple of passengers. It is unclear at what point Hanna knew she was being kidnapped. But the culprits allegedly threatened the teen with knife and took her to one of the suspect’s house. Reports vary but Hanna’s father told the local media she was raped for at least five days.
Hanna’s kidnappers had other plans. They apparently contacted her sisters by phone, perhaps to kidnap them as well. They met the sisters at an arranged place, driving the same minibus, and reportedly asked them to come along. When they refused, the men drove off, exclaiming, “You won’t see your sister then!” A few days later, the suspects left Hanna to die in an abandoned area in the outskirts of the city. Hanna was found unconscious on Oct. 11 and taken to hospital.
“My phone rang 11 days after Hanna disappeared, it was the voice I missed,” Hanna’s father told the U.S.-based Admas Radio last week. “She was weak and exhausted.” For the next few days the family spent going between various referral hospitals and waiting to be admitted. Among other injuries, Hanna suffered from fistula and lost her battle 19 days after she was found. She reportedly identified three of the five suspects from her hospital bed.
On Nov. 19, police brought five suspects before the First Appearance Court in Addis Ababa, according to local reports. During a hearing attended by journalists and women right’s groups, one of the suspects pleaded innocence and all five denied the allegations, telling the court their initial confessions were obtained under duress. The police denied torturing the suspects and asked for 14 days to conduct further investigation.
Hanna could have been saved. The police were slow to investigate the case as a sexual crime. The hospitals failed to treat Hanna’s case with the outmost urgency the situation demanded. I broke down in tears as I read about Hanna’s ordeal. I tried to imagine what she might have felt as her captors took turns to satisfy their desires. I imagined how helpless she might have felt. I imagined Hanna worrying and speculating about how to deal with this tragedy or even tell her parents. Hanna spent days on the streets after suffering a brutal gang rape. It took her few days to call her parents and seek help. It remains unclear whether this was planned or a random incident. But Hanna’s story is far from isolated.
Guilt and sexual trauma
Ethiopia is a deeply patriarchal, closed and conservative country. It has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. More than 70 percent of Ethiopian women face physical and sexual violence, according to a study by the World Health Organization (WHO). Seven percent of girls surveyed by WHO reported experiencing sexual abuse before the age of 15. Seventeen percent said their first sexual experience was forced. The country also has one of the highest rates of bridal kidnapping or marriage by abduction.
Most women and girls keep incidents of rape and sexual abuse secret to avoid societal shunning. About 39 percent never talk to anyone about the violence and the violations they endure, according to WHO. Even fewer women ask authorities for help. Some 53 percent feared repercussions and threats from their partners, while another 37 percent “considered the violence ‘normal’ or ‘not serious,’” the WHO report said.
Worse still, most gender-based violence is solved through family arbitration and socially sanctioned compensation for the victim’s family. As a result, women often don’t feel the need to go public with their story. Therefore, it is not surprising that Hanna’s kidnappers reportedly sent “elders” seeking reconciliation with her parents even as Hanna clung to her last breath in a hospital bed.
Hanna’s story took me back to Addis Ababa, where people walk past you even when they can clearly see that you are in danger. It is a city where the police yell at the victim for running away from a man forcing her into an unwanted relationship or sexual intimacy.
“Addis Ababa is a jungle, be careful,” a friend advised me when I first moved to the city. It didn’t take me long to understand what she meant. In the 10 years that I lived in the city, I learned to cope with endless gazes and widely accepted catcalling. Addis Ababa is one of the country’s few major metropolises. To be sure, city women fare relatively better than their rural counterparts: They drive new cars, they are fashionistas, they hang out at upscale cafes along the famed Bole road, they watch American movies at the city’s upscale Enda Mall and Movie Theater (enjoying popcorn), and they go to sauna and spa every weekend.
But this city of beautiful women has another less known, darker face. In fact, the city’s cosmopolitan character gives the impression that Addis women don’t deal with sexual violence. Hanna’s heart-wrenching story also reminded me of an incident that I will never forget.
I was a young lecturer at Addis Ababa University, then in my early 20s. One afternoon, a colleague from the university invited me for lunch. He took me to a place he said was his favorite near Arat Kilo neighborhood. The restaurant was located a walking distance of off the main road and looked like a place no self-respecting man would take a girl on the first date — a hole-in-the-wall in a residential neighborhood on a barely paved road. After we ate lunch, my colleague went to the bar and whispered something to one of the servers, and returned to ask me to go to the backside for “more privacy.” By then I was growing suspicious of his mannerisms and refused the request. First he tried to persuade me and then he reached and pulled my arms to force me to go with him.
The restaurant owner and customers stood puzzled as I struggled to get away from him. To cover up his brazen acts, he started pretending as if we were married or in some kind of relationship. One of the guys at the restaurant offered to help. I asked him to find a police at which point the restaurant’s owner insisted that I leave. “I don’t want police to come here and ask me to be a witness,” he said. I told him I wouldn’t leave until I know that I am safe.
Shortly afterwards, the gentleman returned with two young policemen. For a minute I felt safe. I told the cops what happened. “It is all your fault,” one of the officers exclaimed. “Why would you go for lunch with him unless you are interested.” I felt insulted and humiliated in front of the restaurant’s patrons. I made it home safe that day but said nothing of my colleague who continued to threaten to get me fired for years unless I slept with him.
As a counselor at AAU, my students came to me with their problems thinking I was better of. I was older than most, but my lot was not better. I received no protection from the university or law enforcement. My students told of sleepless nights worrying about how they would make it to class the next day amid men who wake up early in the morning to do nothing but harass and intimidate them.
In contrast with those in rural areas, a woman in Addis maybe educated and assertive but they are not protected. Their daily ordeal consists of finding another route to school to escape from the guy who threatened to kill them or maim their face. It means making up stories to tell your parents about the bruises on your nose after a boyfriend punched you, or a redeye or a bruise on your chin from a guy you refused to date. It is an untold story of countless women who live with the trauma and guilt of sexual violence. There is simply no good reason or justification for a man to put his hand on a woman. And no women should go through this in the 21st century. But there are few guarantees.
A wakeup call
Hanna’s story received scant attention from the government-run media. Hanna’s story saw the light of day thanks to social media. So far only a handful of Ethiopian outlets carried the story, offering a brief account of Hanna’s kidnapping and rape. Last week, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs held a press conference and pledged to assist with the investigation. However, the Ministry is a political instrument for the country’s rulers and lacks the power and necessary resources to address the pervasive violence against women in Ethiopia. The officials spend more time ballyhooing the government’s record on gender equality to donors while ignoring the normalized sexual and physical violence against women. Independent human rights work is severely restricted. There are no community-based initiatives that can deal with the culturally sanctioned harassment, abuse and discrimination against women.
Hanna’s horrific death should serve as a wakeup call for all Ethiopian women. Sexual and physical violence does not discriminate. Educated or not, teenage or fully-grown women — every woman in Ethiopia is a potential victim. As Sahilu rightly noted, “rape is not about sex,” it is about traditional notions of power. Our society shames and disempowers victims while the rapists are let off the hook under the cover of culture and traditionalism. Nothing could ever bring back Hanna but her death is an opportune moment for Ethiopian women to unite and fight to end gender-based violence. It is the least we can do to honor Hanna.
Tigist Geme is a former lecturer at Addis Ababa University. She currently lives in Washington, D.C.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.