Ethiopia: Official License for Abduction and Rape

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1 Mar 2002

Woineshet Zebene Negash lived in a rural village with her mother and grandparents in the southeastern part of Ethiopia. She was 13 years old when, on March 12, 2001, a man by the name of Aberew Jemma Negussie came to her residence in the middle of the night with a group of accomplices, carried her away and raped her. Her teachers reported her abduction to the police. Two days later, Woineshet was rescued and Aberew Jemma Negussie was arrested. On May 4, however, 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 sign a marriage contract.

In some regions of Ethiopia, abduction is an old cultural practice used to take a girl as wife by force. Typically, the girl is abducted by a group of young men. She is then raped by the man who wants to marry her, who may be someone she knows or may be a total stranger. 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 often consents because a girl who has lost her virginity would be socially unacceptable for marriage to another man. Sometimes the abductor keeps the girl in a hiding place until she is pregnant, at which time the family again feels it has no option but to agree to the marriage.

Woineshet luckily escaped and her family stood by her, refusing to yield to the pressure from the elders to marry Woineshet to her abductor. She now lives in Addis Ababa with her father, afraid to go back to her village where her abductor resides. Both abduction and rape are criminal offences under Ethiopian law, but if marriage is subsequently agreed, the law provides that the husband is exempt from criminal responsibility for his crimes. Woineshet's abductor has a marriage certificate through which he claims Woineshet is his wife; unless it is annulled Woineshet is at risk of being forced into the marriage, which would allow Aberew Jemma Negussie to escape any legal sanction for the abduction and rape. The case of Woineshet illustrates the need for changes in the law to bring perpetrators of abduction to justice and protect the rights of women to be free from abduction, rape and forced marriage.

It may seem unlikely a victim would willingly marry the perpetrator of her abduction and rape. However, with social and cultural pressure from families and the community, as well as threats from the offender, the girl will often "consent" to marry her perpetrator. This "consent" should not be permitted by the law in any way to absolve the perpetrator of his crimes. Rather a clear message should be sent that abduction and rape are wholly unacceptable practices and that they will be charged as serious criminal offences, regardless of subsequent marriage.

Articles 558 and 599 of the 1957 Ethiopian Penal Code allowing abductors and rapists to escape punishment through marriage contravene both the Constitution of Ethiopia and the international conventions to which Ethiopia is a party. The Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia ratified in 1995, which has made all international conventions part of the domestic law, requires the interpretation of the human rights provisions of the Constitution to be in conformity with international conventions. The Constitution under Article 25 provides for the right to equality before the law without discrimination and under Article 35 proclaims the equal rights of women, including in marriage, and the right to be free from harmful traditional practices. Moreover, Ethiopia is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which in Article 16 requires states parties to take appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage.

The Ethiopian Government can show its commitment to punishing the crimes of abduction and rape not just by ensuring these crimes are fully prosecuted as criminal offences, irrespective of whether marriage has been subsequently concluded or not, but also by ensuring that the penalties for abduction and rape reflect the seriousness of these crimes. At present, there is no specific minimum penalty ascribed to rape or abduction, which not only shows a lack of gravity attached to these crimes, but also leaves considerable latitude for arguments of mitigation without a legal context to give an objective standard. (A new draft Penal Code that would set a minimum sentence for rape of 5 years has been under discussion for several years.) Changing the law to adequately address the injustice and discrimination that abducted and raped girls face in bringing their perpetrators to justice is essential to the realization of the fundamental right to equality in Ethiopia.

What You Can Do: 

Please write to the Ethiopian authorities and urge them to take immediate steps to stop the practice of bride abduction by abolishing the legal provisions that exempt perpetrators of abduction or rape from criminal responsibility upon marriage. Urge them to ensure that abduction and rape are treated as serious criminal offences and that, when prosecuting and sentencing perpetrators, the courts send a strong message that these crimes will not be tolerated. Remind the government of its duty to protect constitutional rights, in particular the right to equality (Article 25 of the Ethiopian Constitution), the right to marital, personal and family rights (Article 34) and the right to security of person (Article 16). Mention also the Ethiopian Government's international obligations, including CEDAW (Article15 - Equality before the law) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, Article 23 - Free and full consent of parties intending to enter marriage). Letters should be addressed to:

H.E Prime Minster Meles Zenawi
Office of the Prime Minister
PO Box 1030
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Fax: +251-1-55-20-20

The Honorable Harka Haroye
Minister of Justice
Ministry of Justice
PO Box 1370
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Fax: +251-1-51-77-75