NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Ethiopian government has been ordered to pay $150,000 to a girl who said she was raped, abducted and forced to agree to marriage at the age of 13, in a landmark ruling activists hope will deter an outlawed, traditional form of child marriage.
Woineshet Zebene Negash, who said she was raped in 2001, filed a complaint with the Gambia-based African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2007 after Ethiopia’s court overturned the conviction of her perpetrator.
“It is a practice that draws stark parallels with a proverbial ancient past when a man would hunt down the female of his choice, slug her over the head with a club, drag her by the hair to his dwelling, rape her and emerge triumphantly beating his chest,” the court said in a ruling released this week.
Ethiopia must pay reparations to Woineshet, the court said, because it failed to protect her or provide her with justice.
Child marriage is a major problem in Ethiopia, where one in two girls are brides by the age of 18, according to government data. Abusive practices include marriage by abduction — as in Woineshet’s case — and forced unions between cousins.
Families often agree for girls to marry their rapists because of the shame that they have lost their virginity.
“The disposability of girls in Ethiopia and around the world needs to end,” Faiza Mohamed, Africa director of the rights group Equality Now, which represented Woineshet in court, said in a statement.
“We can only hope that the message this unprecedented ruling sends will have a ripple effect at all levels of society.”
A spokesman for the Ethiopian government declined to comment on the case on Friday.
Woineshet said she was kidnapped from her house in 2001 by several men, one of whom, Aberew Jemma Negussie, raped her.
“The complainants allege... the police who rescued her testified to seeing blood on the pyjamas she was still wearing since her abduction,” the court document said.
“They allege that a medical report also showed many scratches and bruises around her vagina and confirmed that penetration had taken place.”
The police rescued Woineshet and arrested Aberew. But he abducted her a second time after being released on bail, held her captive for almost a month and forced her to give written consent to marriage, she said.
Woineshet escaped and Aberew was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2003, with eight year sentences for his accomplices.
Five months later, all the men were freed after an appeal court found the prosecution had not proven its case and the victim had consented to sex, court documents show.
Under a law that was repealed in 2005, a rapist could not be prosecuted if his victim “freely contracts a marriage” with him.
Equality Now argued that the marriage was invalid because Woineshet signed the contract under duress.
Ethiopia’s government told the court it had made an amicable settlement with Woineshet, providing her with a house and a job, and had dismissed the judge who overturned the conviction.
But the court said the government had not provided proof of this and Equality Now said Woineshet had since sought asylum abroad, court documents showed.
Reporting by Katy Migiro; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.