Fifteen years ago, Woineshet Zebene Negash of Ethiopia — who was then just 13 years old — was abducted, held captive and raped in order to force her into a marriage to which neither she nor her family had consented.
Hers wasn’t an uncommon story: In parts of rural Ethiopia, this is an old cultural practice. Men who’ve been rejected by a woman or her family often resort to abduction and rape as a way to force a union.
Unlike many others, Negash was able to fight back. She reported her assailants to the police, then fought them in court. And when a higher court in Ethopia overturned their indictment without much reason, she — with the help of lawyers from the human rights advocacy group Equality Now — brought the case to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Earlier this week, the commission ruled that the Ethiopian government had failed to protect her rights. It is requiring the Ethiopian government to pay her $150,000 in reparations — and implement laws to prevent future cases like hers.
The ruling is a resounding affirmation of women’s rights, says Christa Stewart, a lawyer with Equality Now who worked on Negash’s case.
We asked her to tell us a bit more about the case and what the ruling will mean for victims of rape and child marriage in Ethiopia.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why is this case so important?
This is a resounding affirmation of the rights of young girls. The decision looks comprehensively not just at Woineshet’s violation but at Ethiopia’s larger obligation to deal with these cases of rape and abduction. That means monitoring and then prosecuting such cases, and also training judicial officers in how to handle them. The commission was very specific, asking the Ethiopia to report back in six months about what they have done to remedy the situation so that similar cases won’t occur.
Why do men abduct girls for marriage? What’s driving this practice?
Oftentimes, this happens because a man who wants to marry a girl cannot afford to pay the necessary dowry. So he and a group of other men will abduct the girl, rape her, and afterwards ask the village elders to approach the girl’s family, saying, “She’s no longer a virgin, she’s not marriageable to anybody else anymore, so why not consent to this marriage?” The rapist will promise to apologize and to take care of her. This is a common practice.
What was unusual in Woineshet’s case is that the police in this village decided to arrest, prosecute and hold the rapist and his accomplices in the abduction accountable. That was in 2001.
What happened then? Shouldn’t the case have ended at that point, 15 years ago?
A few days after the arrest, the men were let out on bail. They abducted her again, and this time they hid her and kept her captive for a month, until she managed to escape and made it to a police station.
During her captivity, the men had forced her to sign a marriage contract — which, of course, is not what we think of as genuine consent.
In 2003, the rapist husband was sentenced to 10 years in jail without parole and his accomplices were sentenced to 8 years.
So they were indicted — or is there more to this story?
The men appealed their cases to an appellate court, and they won.
[The court ruled that “evidence suggests that the act was consensual,” without making it clear why.]
And throughout this whole appeals case, there were procedural moves to obstruct justice. The appellate court asked Woineshet to prove she had been a virgin before she had been raped, for example.
Our organization, which was representing Woineshet, appealed further until we exhausted all legal opportunities within Ethiopia. That took several years. Then we brought the case to African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.
What does the commission do?
It helps oversee the interpretation and application of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which was ratified in 1981 by all 53 states of the African Union. So the commission serves as a higher court for the whole continent of Africa.
Did anything change during the 15 years this case was ongoing?
In the interim, we worked with the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyer’s Association and did succeed in making some changes in Ethiopia. In 2004, the government enacted stiffer penalties for rape and changed the law so that rapists who married their victims were not exempt from being charged.
But now, thanks to the African Commission’s decision, the Ethiopian government has an obligation to protect the rights of young girls like Woineshet.
How did Woineshet cope during all those years?
Her commitment to pursuing justice was remarkable — she stuck with it in spite of all the intimidation she received throughout.
She was persecuted and even threatened with death. She did not feel safe, so she was granted asylum and left the country. In order to protect her safety, we can’t say where she is living now. Now she is 27 years old. She is still recovering but is doing well, still pursuing her education and working. I don’t know if she is finding it easy but she is definitely persevering.