NAIROBI - Woineshet Zebene Negash was just thirteen in March 2001, when Aberew Jemma Negussie and a group of accomplices broke into her house late at night, carried her away and raped her.
After her teachers reported the incident to the police, Woineshet was rescued and her rapist was arrested. However, some weeks later, her story was to get even more complicated and distressing. Having been released by police on bail, Negussie abducted her again and hid her in his brother's house. She was held there until she managed to escape more than a month later, but only after she was forced to scrawl her name on a piece of paper – a document which would later be used against her in court as a supposed “marriage contract”.
In parts of Ethiopia, abduction has been used to force a girl or woman into marriage for many years. The girl is commonly abducted by a group of men and then raped by the man who wants to marry her. He usually cannot afford her dowry or ‘bride price’. The next day, the elders from the man's village “apologize” to the family of the girl and ask them to agree to the marriage. The family is forced to “consent” as a girl who has lost her virginity would be considered "tarnished goods".
In July 2003, Negussie was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment without parole for abduction and rape. Four accomplices were also sentenced to eight years each. This was the first Ethiopian case in which accomplices were also charged and convicted for abduction. Justice was finally served – or so we thought.
Later that year, the sentence was overturned by an appeals court and all five perpetrators were released. According to reports, the court said that she could not have been raped. "No one" would want to rape a girl who is not a virgin. The case was dismissed.
Incredibly, according to reports, the prosecutor in the case ignored the law by saying Woineshet would have to prove she was a virgin before the rape – otherwise the perpetrators should be set free.
Under pressure from the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association and international human rights organization, Equality Now, citing Woineshet’s case as an example of clear injustice, the Ethiopian state moved to change its Penal Code in 2004. It had previously exempted rapists from punishment if they married their victims. Stiffer penalties for rape were also introduced at the same time. This was one of Equality Now's first ever cases under its 'Adolescent Girls' Legal Defense Fund'.
Since her perpetrators could not be re-tried within their own country and because all other local avenues to justice were exhausted, we decided to take the case further and pursue the entire Ethiopian government, which had violated numerous counts of both national and international law.
In 2007, we filed a complaint with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on behalf of Woineshet, calling on the Ethiopian government to ensure that justice prevailed for her.
Nine years later – and fifteen years since Woineshet was raped, some form of justice has finally been achieved. The African Commission found that Ethiopia did not protect her from violence and also failed to provide a "decent system of justice". It ruled that she should be compensated with $150,000 and that Ethiopia should implement “escalated and targeted measures” to deal with "marriage" by abduction and rape.
Woineshet is now in her late twenties, living in relative safety and pursuing her education. Today’s ruling means that she can finally complete this horrific chapter in her life and move on in the knowledge that she has helped to make lives better for future generations of Ethiopian women and girls.
We can only hope that the message this unprecedented ruling sends will have a ripple effect at all levels of society. It has taken a decade and a half to obtain justice in a case, which should have been very straightforward. The 'disposability' of girls in Ethiopia and around the world needs to end. We cannot be free until every sexist Penal Code is changed and every single girl is protected from violence.