Johann Hari, the youngest person to be nominated for the Orwell Prize for political writing, and the winner the Press Gazette Young Journalist of the Year Award, writes compassionately about the extraordinary resilience of Ethiopian women. From abduction to rape, lack of political freedom and protection for rights of women, Johann writes a brilliant piece on the condition of Ethiopian women — most of whom are beaten, overworked, and forgotten. Here is the excerpt from the report.
Every woman remembers her wedding day with a tear in her eye – but, here in Ethiopia, the tears are different, and darker, and do not stop. Nurame Abedo is sitting in her hut high in the clouds, remembering the day she became a wife. She lives hundreds of miles into the countryside, thousands of feet above sea-level, in the hills of the bridal-kidnapping capital of the world. For 40 years, she didn’t talk about her wedding, or how it came to happen. If she tried, she was beaten by her captor, who said good women never speak of such things. So she tells her story slowly, haltingly, her sentences punctuated by sudden high-pitched laughs that seem to erupt involuntarily from her gut.
Nurame was in her bed when she was woken by an angry mêlée. In her family’s hut there were grown men – an incredible number, 10 or more, all in their 30s, all standing over her father, shouting. They reached for her. At night here, where there is no electricity, perfect darkness falls, and everything becomes a shadow-play of barely visible flickers. But even though she was eight years old, she suspected at once what was happening. She had heard whispers that, when a girl is considered ready for marriage, a man will seize her, and rape her, and then she must serve him for the rest of her life. “That was the culture,” she says. But it wasn’t her culture: like all the other little girls, she didn’t want it. “I started screaming and tried to run out of the hut,” she says. “I hid in the trees – hah! – but one of the men found me.”
She was taken back to his home, held down in front of his family, raped, and taken to be married the next morning. Dazed, she signed the papers, and waited for a moment when she could flee.
Ethiopia has been slipping in a political mudslide towards being a police state for years. Ask a taxi driver or a random person on the street what he thinks of the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, and he looks jolted and afraid. He will mumble a non-committal phrase – such as “He is our leader, yes” – and try to get away from you a soon as possible. The press serves up only the gruel of propaganda, pre-approved by the regime. As a former Marxist guerrilla, Zenawi was never a true democrat, but political freedoms have been in freefall since the last election. Critics of the regime and opposition politicians vanish into torture-jails and emerge lame and silent years later. There has been an exodus of Ethiopians who work in human rights, and they are now scattered across the globe.
To a dictator, any self-organising, self-confident community is a threat to be dispersed – even if the community is organising to achieve a goal the regime shares. If the people can talk to each other, there is a risk they will talk against the dictator. So last year, the Ethiopian government passed one of the most restrictive laws anywhere in Africa. They banned international human rights groups, saying it is “imperialist” to check to see if Ethiopians are being kidnapped or tortured. At the same time, they passed a law saying all Ethiopian human rights groups need to raise 90 per cent of their income inside the country. In practice, this means most of them have all but shut down.
The Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers Association (EWLA) has been the great legal champion opposing abduction and genital mutilation. Now its leaders are in exile, unable to help anyone here. At first, its senior figures nervously refuse to talk to me. When one finally agrees to meet for coffee in an Addis Ababa café, she speaks only in oblique, fractured sentences, as if a secret policeman is standing over her shoulder. (I won’t give her name, for obvious reasons.)
“More than 80 per cent of our staff have had to be laid off,” she says, but adds quickly: “It is not a problem of government.” The most she will say is there are still “some bad judges”. When the interview is over, she seems physically to relax, her shoulders finally rolling out of a tense hunch.
KMG has been classified as a “humanitarian” rather than a “human rights” organisation – at every turn, it stresses it doesn’t oppose the government, but only wants to hold it to the standards it says it sets for itself – so for now it can still raise international funds. But nobody knows when that too could be choked off – so the time to give is now.
— Full Report The Independent (Kidnapped. Raped. Married. The extraordinary rebellion of Ethiopia’s abducted wives)