In March 2002, Equality Now partnered with the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) in the campaign to outlaw bride abduction in Ethiopia, adding an international overlay to the advocacy EWLA carries out on the ground. Our Women’s Action highlighted the case of Woineshet Zebene Negash who in 2001 at the age of 13 was abducted and raped by Aberew Jemma Negussie in the south eastern town of Abadjema in the Guna Woreda district where she lived with her mother and grandparents. Two days later she was rescued, and Aberew Jemma Negussie was arrested. After he was released on bail, he abducted Woineshet again and held her for more than a month until she managed to escape, but only after he had forced her to sign a marriage certificate. At that time the law in Ethiopia permitted abductors and rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims. Social pressures often result in rape victims “consenting” to such marriages. Woineshet, however, with the support of her father, refused to marry her abductor and rapist.
Unusually, the authorities pursued a case against Aberew Jemma Negussie and his accomplices who were duly sentenced in 2003. On appeal, however, without notice to Woineshet or her counsel, all were released with the judge suggesting, based on no referenced evidence and despite her young age that Woineshet had consented to sex with Aberew Jemma Negussie. Even the prosecutor recommended overturn of the previous guilty verdict and did not object to the defendants being set free. EWLA, which had been providing Woineshet with legal assistance, petitioned for a further appeal to address the injustice of the appeal court ruling. An appeal was allowed and the case was heard on 4 December 2004 by the Oromia Supreme Court sitting in Addis Ababa. The Court ruled there were not sufficient grounds to reconsider the case, and it dismissed the appeal. All further appeals were rejected on similar grounds and all domestic legal recourse was therefore closed to Woineshet.
On 9 May 2005 after several years’ deliberation a new Penal Code came into effect in Ethiopia, which inter alia removed the marital exemption from punishment for abduction and rape. Stiffer penalties for rape were also introduced. However the law has not been rigorously enforced. Indeed, anecdotal information suggests abductions and rapes ceased when the outcome of Woineshet’s case was uncertain, but resumed when it was clear the perpetrators would go unpunished. In our efforts to seek justice for Woineshet, as well as to secure enforcement of the law for other girls who are still victim of the traditional practice of bride abduction, EWLA and Equality Now have submitted a communication to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights claiming violation of Woineshet’s rights under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The case is currently under review.
Now the work of EWLA and others like it is at serious risk. A proposed new law in Ethiopia to regulate charities and societies threatens to halt the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), particularly those working in the field of human rights and justice and law enforcement services. The Charities and Societies Proclamation as currently drafted would give a newly-established Charities and Societies Agency very wide discretion to regulate NGOs and control their activities. Of crucial particular concern is the ban on NGOs which receive more than 10% of their funding from overseas from participating in work that promotes human and democratic rights, equality (including that of women), the rights of children and people with disabilities, conflict resolution, and the efficiency of justice and law enforcement. NGOs already fear the cancellation of valuable projects because the money to fund them comes from outside the country and it is unrealistic to expect local fundraising to make up the shortfall. In anticipation of passage of this bill, NGOs are also losing valuable staff who need to secure a more certain livelihood. This draconian and oppressive law, if it comes into force, could end the valuable work of many organizations and would be a severely wounding blow to an open and transparent society in Ethiopia.
EWLA faces a significant scaling down of its projects and eventual closure. It was founded by Ethiopian women lawyers in 1996 and its mission is to promote the economic, political, social and legal rights of women. It assists women to secure full protection of their rights under the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and international human rights conventions to which Ethiopia is a party. EWLA also operates shelters for women survivors of violence. In September 2001, the Ministry of Justice attempted to bar EWLA from operating on the basis that it was engaging in activities other than those permitted by law. The attack on EWLA came after it made public the case of Hermela Wosenyeleh, a victim of sexual harassment, who was not able to secure adequate police protection. Domestic and international protests eventually rescinded EWLA’s suspension. EWLA is particularly concerned that the law could potentially reverse the gains made so far since organizations such as EWLA have been the catalyzing force behind women's rights promotion and protection by advocating for law reform and pioneering the provision of free legal aid to poor women victims of violence.
The Charities and Societies Proclamation is said to be aimed at aiding and facilitating the role of charities and societies in the overall development of the Ethiopian people. NGOs do not question the right of the Ethiopian government to regulate the work of charities in accordance with transparent and reasonable criteria which seek to improve the administration and functioning of charitable organizations and to hold them accountable to their mandates. Of concern if the Proclamation is passed into law in its current form is the effective ban on many organizations working on human rights and to improve the criminal justice system since most of these organizations depend on international funding. In addition, the draft Proclamation gives wide discretion to the proposed Charities and Societies Agency to set its own rules and regulations for the supervision and control of NGOs’ operations, and provides NGOs with relatively restricted ability to appeal any Agency decision, despite a Constitutional provision that the affairs of government will be transparent. The Ethiopian Constitution also protects freedom of expression, opinion, and petition among other rights. Similar provisions are included in various international human rights instruments to which Ethiopia is a party, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Proclamation is at the last stage before being adopted into law. It is said the government wants to move swiftly for its adoption so that funds from abroad for human rights projects for the next financial year will be cancelled.
Please write to the officials listed below expressing deep concern over the draft Charities and Societies Proclamation as it would effectively disallow human rights organizations from operating in Ethiopia. Highlight also the unacceptably wide scope of authority given to the proposed Charities and Societies Agency under the bill and the lack of transparency regarding its terms of operation. Ask the officials to ensure removal of the requirement that NGOs working on women’s rights and other specified issues raise at least 90% of their funding domestically and urge them to promote comprehensive revision of the text to guarantee that all NGOs, including those working to promote human rights, including women’s rights, are permitted to operate without political interference as provided under the Ethiopian Constitution and international human rights treaties to which Ethiopia is a party.
Letters should go immediately to:
H.E. Berhan Hailu
Minister of Justice
P O. Box 1370
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Tel: +251 11 551 3620
Fax: +251 11 551 7775
H.E. Muferiat Kamil
Minister of Women’s Affairs
P.O. Box 1293
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Tel: +251 11 416 6375
Fax: +251 11 416 6362
With copies to:
H.E. Dr. Kassa G. Hiwot
Commissioner Ethiopian Human Rights Commission
P.O. Box 1165
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Tel: +251 11 618 0046
Fax: +251 11 618 0041
H.E. Ato Abay Tekele
P.O. Box 2459
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Tel: +251 11 553 2052/53
Fax: +251 11 553 2073
URGENT APPEAL: New Law Threatens Human Rights in Ethiopia
On 6 January 2009, the Ethiopian government pushed through passage of the Charities and Societies Proclamation before Parliament went on recess. The effects of this Proclamation were set out in Equality Now Women’s Action 22.5 (see below). We hope you have the time to send a letter immediately to the Ethiopian Justice Minister, urging immediate review and revision of this law. We have suggested a possible text below, but please feel free to write your own letter.
Without an amendment to the provision that restricts organizations which receive more than 10% of their funding from outside the country from undertaking any human rights work, many critical services and protections will disappear. Thank you for your partnership.