Ethiopia: Official License for Abduction and Rape

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1 Feb 2004

On July 22, 2003, Aberew Jemma Negussie was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment without parole for the abduction and rape of Woineshet Zebene Negash. His four accomplices were each sentenced to 8 years’ imprisonment without parole. Although cases of abduction and rape are sometimes reported to the Ethiopian authorities, prosecutions are uncommon and rarely successful. This is the first case in which accomplices were also charged and convicted for abduction.

In March 2002, Equality Now launched its campaign against abduction and rape in Ethiopia, highlighting the case of Woineshet who at the age of 13 was abducted and raped by Aberew Jemma Negussie in the rural village where she lived with her mother and grandparents in the southeastern part of Ethiopia. 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. Both abduction and rape are criminal offences under Ethiopian law, but Articles 558 and 599 of the 1957 Ethiopian Penal Code provide that if marriage is subsequently agreed, then the husband is exempt from criminal responsibility for these crimes.

Woineshet’s consistent testimony that she was forced to sign the marriage certificate, which Aberew Jemma Negussie used in an effort to avoid punishment for the abduction and rape, led the court to reach its conclusion in her case after two years of proceedings. During this time, Woineshet received unfailing support from her father, who refused to settle out of court in his determination to seek justice for his daughter. Upon hearing the news that her abductor and his accomplices had been convicted and imprisoned, Woineshet expressed her joy in an interview on Ethiopian radio. Although she now feels safe to return to her village, she plans to continue her education in Addis Ababa, where she has been residing with her father.

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 elders from the man's village then 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 her family feels it has no option but to agree to the marriage.

Woineshet’s case is a victory that should encourage girls to seek legal redress for abduction and rape, but the law through which marriage offers exemption from punishment remains in force. The practice will not end unless the law is changed to protect the rights of women and girls to be free from abduction, rape and forced marriage. Articles 558 and 599 of the 1957 Ethiopian Penal Code contravene both the Constitution of Ethiopia and the international conventions to which Ethiopia is a party. Article 25 of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, ratified in 1995, provides for the right to equality before the law without discrimination, and 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.

Reform of the criminal law is underway in Ethiopia, and draft revisions of the Penal Code are currently pending in Parliament. The Ethiopian Government can show its commitment to punishing the crimes of abduction and rape in all cases by ensuring that the marital exemption is removed in the legislation adopted. 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 listed below. Commend the Minister of Justice for the action taken to ensure justice in the case of Aberew Jemma Negussie and urge him to actively support the abolition of the legal provisions in Articles 558 and 599 of the Ethiopian Penal Code that exempt perpetrators of abduction and rape from criminal responsibility upon marriage. Urge the Minister 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. Write to the Chair of the Legal and Administrative Affairs Standing Committee of Parliament and urge him to take immediate steps to stop the practice of bride abduction in Ethiopia by rescinding Articles 558 and 599. Remind these officials of the government’s obligation under the Constitution and international law to protect and promote the right to equality and equal protection of the law. Letters should be addressed to:

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

The Honorable Asmelash
Woldeselassie, Chair
Legal and Administrative Affairs Standing Committee
PO Box 80001
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Fax: +251-1-55-09-00