As Ethiopian women's rights organisations struggle to stay afloat following government legislation that prohibits them from receiving international funding, violence against women continues to rise, writes Billene Seyoum Woldeyes. But in the absence of social and institutional support, where can victims of gender-based violence turn to for help?
With the news of what happened to Aberash surfacing and spreading like wild-fire as of yesterday, her wounds and her pain are symbolic of a dysfunctional society stained by the tears and blood of countless women whose cries and plea have often gone unheard and silenced by the taboos of culture.
Aberash, an Ethiopian Airlines flight attendant whose ex-husband, Fisseha Tadesse, stabbed both her eyes out with a knife last week, now lies in a hospital in Bangkok, Thailand receiving medical attention to retain sight in one of her eyes, although local medical experts have ruled out the chance of survivability.
According to the Amharic newspaper, The Reporter, Aberash was married for seven years before the marriage amicably ended a few months ago. Her uncle says that the night of the incident both Aberash and her ex-husband were invited for festivities in his house and they appeared to be in 'good condition', whatever that means.
What the article did not express however was that both her eyes experienced multiple stabs from various directions which made it near to impossible for surgeons to even sew shut the gaping socket which once housed beautiful eyes. According to close sources, Aberash also had choke marks around her neck, stab wounds on her hands and legs and bruises on the back of her head which indicate impact to the area. However, damage to her brain has been ruled out after CAT scans were performed. The accused, Fisseha, turned himself in to the local police after having committed this heinous crime and leaving her in a bloody mess.
As I write this, I sit with two contrasting feelings bubbling within me. One is that of a deep-seated anger bordering on hatred for the opposite sex who are often the perpetrators of such inhumane acts and the obstacles to the advancement of women's human rights.
The second is idealism that the brutality of this case may ignite a platform for male allies to initiate the campaign and express their disgust with such acts and expressions of masculinity - an outcry against violence against women (VAW) that Ethiopian men can sustain beyond the emotionality of reacting to current events. It is a very far and removed idealism, disconnected from the reality on the ground, but one I secretly nurture because a fantasy escape is all one can revel in when in such depressing moments, because for all the information I and those like me may have, we have no clue then where else women and girls can go.
I spent three hours of this afternoon sitting in an emergency meeting convened by concerned individuals and interested stakeholders at the office of the Network of Ethiopian Women's Associations (NEWA), to discuss the way forward in bringing a screeching halt to the violent acts that are increasingly being inflicted on women and girls all over Ethiopia.
The discussions turned into revelations of many other cases of violence perpetrated against Ethiopian women and girls passing away without the raising of multiple red flags by concerned authorities. Since the enactment of the 2009 CSO Law (Charities & Societies), which prohibits local organisations working on human rights and women's issues from receiving international funding, the ability of these local women's organisations to mobilise funds and campaign vigorously has been severely hampered to the point of rendering all the advancements made useless.
A decline in women's activism on the issues of women's rights can be witnessed within the past two years with the heads of relevant organisations reporting that their institutional capacity to address and tackle issues of violence against women is timid because of the uncertainty and the climate of fear induced by this law.
For all the progressive goals that the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) had accomplished over the past decade, today it chugs along like a train out of steam unable to cater to the overwhelming demand with its financial limbs dismembered. Where then do women and girls go?
'The slogan first became popular in the 1970s, (second wave movement) as a way to convey to women who were suffering in silence that their individual experiences were, in fact, instances of widespread sexism.' Understanding that some issues concerning women which are relegated to the domestic sphere usually are stifled to silence, the 'personal is political' slogan calls to attention the many facets of life which are often dismissed by men as 'personal' are in fact relevant areas of political action.
That the national policing system and courts employ a disinterest in pursuing what are deemed 'domestic' acts of violence unless mounting public pressure is employed as was the case of Hermela is highly alarming. When institutions merely pay lip service to ideals of women's rights and equality, then where do women and girls go?
One of my favorite TedTalks is by Zainab Salbi, founder of Women to Women International. In her talk entitled 'Women, Wartime and the Dream of Peace', Zainab speaks of the need to understand peace from a toenail's perspective. She tells the story of a South Sudanese woman who walked great distances for years to escape sexual servitude to soldiers and lost her toe nails as a result. Later on when asked of what peace meant to her, she replied 'Peace is the fact that my toenails are growing back again.' For me, this is a classic example of understanding that there are pieces of peace. That in Ethiopia, we are a society witnessing horrendous crimes and violence committed against women and girls on a daily basis and that these crimes are ignored is the epitome of the absence of peace. For Aberash's sake we need to understand peace from the perspective of light.
In a culturally stifled and repressed society, where do women and girls go? Where do they find redress in the face of mounting attacks to their person? What is the role of men in tackling these issues? In redefining the prevailing and ill-conceived masculinities?
I have no doubt that the question in most people's minds upon hearing of Aberash is 'what was his reason for doing this?' 'What did she do to him?' But does there have to be a reason? Does our fixation on finding that 'credible' reason justify his barbaric acts?
I leave all these questions to you because these and other hot questions beg a collective discussion. Aberash's case is the last straw in a pile of injustices being committed against women and girls in this country. Her story should not be a coffee break gossip line but a serious call for action to STOP VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN.