The Plight of women - A Call for a change!

The Reporter (Addis Ababa)
December 8, 1999
by Tewedj Kebede

Addis Ababa - It is the women who are the major victims of many harmful cultural practices. Abduction, rape and abortion are some of the common practices in Ethiopia as a result of which thousands of women's lives were wrecked. Women are abducted, raped and were forced by circumstances to abort a child because of their social, economical or cultural status.

In a manner of speaking, abduction, rape and abortion were not considered to be serious problems in our country. In fact, they were considered, especially in rural areas, as a must. Although the law forbids them, they are practiced by society.

Therefore, to protect the victims of these harmful practices - women - the Women's Affairs Standing Committee in the House of Peoples' Representatives organized a seminar from 2 to 4 December at the House of People's Representative. More than 50 people, professionals and regional representatives were present to discuss the modification of the Ethiopian Penal Code to guarantee women, children and family rights and security.

Concerning abduction and rape, Ato Tiumelisan Lemma, an expert in the court, said that the main reason was society's strong beliefes rooted in culture which considered the practice as normal and even obligatory. In some cases, he said, it was found difficult for a woman to get married unless she was abducted. He cited examples of the Southern regions of Ethiopia where 80% of the marriages are the result of abduction. On the other hand, he said, because it is only seen as a must there are situations where a woman is abducted and even forced to marry the person who abducted her without her own consent.

Explaining the hazardous consequences of abduction, he said that women face psychological as well as physical harm, whether married or not. In addition, the woman would be rejected by thje society if she leaves her abductor, and however logical her reasons, she would be considerd as promiscuous.

According to the Ethiopian Penal Code, article 558/1, abduction is considered to be a crime. It says: "Whosoever carries off a woman by violence, or after having obtained her consent to abduction by intimidation or violence, trickery or deceit, is punishable with rigorous imprisonment not exceeding three years."

Although the Ethiopian Penal Code stipulates that abduction is punishable, the practice is continuing as normal in Ethiopia, said Ato Tiumelisan. In addition, the feebleness in the implementation of the law is the major factor for the expansion of the practice, he added. Hence, he commented that it was important that the law must be put right so as to protect women's rights.

Although the cultural boundary was the major obstacle to the occurrence of any visible change, he said, societal organizations, in addition to government and law, must try hard to change the harmful attitude of the practitioners.

He also explained that rape was the other major problem where a lot of consideration must be given. According to Ato Tiumelisan, the same problem in the implementation of the law made it difficult to save not only women, but also girl-children of the country. He pointed out that 93 girl-children below the age of fifteen are raped every day in three Ethiopian regions.

Rape is one of the major causes of unwanted pregnancy, said Doctor Zufan Lakew a labor medical expert. She said that today from the 910,000 pregnancy rate in the world, 50% are unplanned and unwanted. Hence, she said, there are more than 60 million women who abort and half of them are practiced illegally.

In Ethiopia, she said, the majority of the victims of abortion were youngsters. The reason was, she said, lack of awareness of the physical and physiological consequences.

She said that about 600 thousand mothers die as a result of health problems where about 40 percent were caused by abortion. Among these, 90 percent was observed in developing countries and poor family members, she added.

According to Dr. Zufan, legalizing "reliable abortion" will help to reduce the number of maternal death and also bring a healthy relationship between the sexes.

Concerning the legality, Ato Tsehay Weda, from the Addis Ababa University Law Faculty, said that abortion, according to the Ethiopian code, was a crime. Representatives of religions institutions at the conference also indicated that it was a "sin to kill a life."

The observed reasons for abortion, Ato Tsehay explained, were poverty, sex before marriage, unplanned pregnancy, rape, unplanned pregnancy, health problem of the foetus or the mother, control of population growth and incest.

Ato Tsehay also stressed that the implementation of the law made it difficult to control the practice which he termed "a paper tiger." Since the practice will be implemented whether legalized or not, the law must improve its penal code on abortion.

To solve these problems, the participants of the seminar urged the government to improve the Ethiopian Penal Code and follow up the implementation of the law. In addition, they call upon governmental, private, NGOs and religious institutions to use every mechanism to raise the society's awareness so as to cradicate the harmful practices against women in particular.