Seedlings or a Girl: Access to Justice in Ethiopia

I took the title from one of the sarcastic tweets by a fellow Ethiopian on Twitter on the recent ridiculous court sentencing a man to 10 years in prison for raping a 12-year-old and assaulting. 

While another man, from West Arsi Zone, Heben District in Oromia region, who said to have uprooted 177 seedlings planted as part of the ‘Green Legacy’ initiative by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Under the initiative reports showed 350m trees were planted in a single day to break a world record for the most trees planted in one day previously at 50m, held by India since 2016.  So as Ethiopia broke the record, the man who uprooted the seedlings was sentenced to 6 years in prison. 

I pondered for days on the swiftness of the system and how it arrives the difference sentences in these two different cases. The first one was committed on unnamed young girls whom the state structure has not much interest in, and the second was a political act of ‘opposing’ the government with no dire consequences like a human rights violations. 

We came to know about (at least I and others who shared the story online) the plight of the girl from a Facebook  post by the Attorney General’s Office that read ‘ an elderly man who committed rape against young girls is sentenced to prison sentence without parole.” 

The post said the court used some ‘conditions’ of the rapist, who is 81 years old, to give him a lesser sentence. These ‘conditions’ were ‘that he has a family and is a ‘provider’, he has unnamed illnesses (that he may have transmitted to the girls by the way) and he has no earlier criminal record’. 

Rape is a pervasive form of gender-based violence. As a result, women suffer physically, socially, psychologically and emotionally. Rape is simply the ultimate weapon that men use to exercise their power over women and to exhibit their domination and privilege. It is an act of hostility, power, control, humiliation, degradation and it is an attack on a woman ‘s body, on her feelings and on her whole life, since, in the final analysis, it is a violation of the most part of her body as well as her psyche. But mostly it is made as a crime of less impact. Hence failing to give punishment stated by the following provisions in the law 

The  Criminal Code of Ethiopia, Article 620 on the crime of rape says, in part, “whoever compels a woman to submit to sexual intercourse outside wedlock, whether using violence or grave intimidation, or after having rendered her unconscious or incapable of resistance, is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from five years to fifteen years.”

Even though this law and the provisions exist on paper, ostensibly for women and girls’ protection, there are effective social and legal constraints which prevent them from utilizing their legal rights.

Even for those who came seeking justice, the examples of the above verdict are an insult to their injuries. This example is another indicator that the well being of women and girls of this country is not of an urgent matter and seen as of importance. I said this against the backdrop of many cases where justice hasn’t been served even for some recent high profile cases where violence against women like the rape, acid attack and killing of Chaltu a 14 year old girl who was hired as a house help, a murder of a mother of two by her colleague who ‘ claims to love her’ and managed to escape from police custody) that resulted in horrific death. 

We ought to see the swiftness to handle political protests transferred to enabling vulnerable people including women and girls access justice with no impediments. The Prime Minister may have appointed the much talked about gender balanced cabinet and a first female president, but he hasn’t yet to meet representatives of women of the country while every other association from medical professionals to lawyers and teachers as well as the ‘youth’ he has made time for.  All these groups raised their concerns regarding what they face in their professional lives and lived experiences.

While for women, despite submitting their ‘asks’, among which was calling out the failure of government to protect women from violence, they are yet to get that receptive gesture. Certainly meeting the PM isn’t the magic bullet that will deliver Ethiopian women justice and working structures that ensure protection and accountability but that firm and consistent political will is key. 

bettywoldeyohannes
bettywoldeyohannes

Bethlehem N. Woldeyohannes is a Feminist Writer, a Newspaper Columnist and Media and Communications Consultant based in Addis Ababa.