Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

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Ethiopian Women Rally

By Abebe Andualem, The Associated Press

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) - Singing and waving banners, Ethiopian women culminated a week of protests against rising domestic violence at a rally Saturday in the capital's Meskel Square.

Then, in the first public act of its kind in Ethiopia, hundreds of women marched to the office of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and to parliament and delivered petitions demanding more police protection and harsher sentences for offenders.

"The conspiracy of silence is frightening when the violence is against toddlers, and it is time that we spoke out," Konjit Fekade, chairwoman of the protest committee, told the crowd of about 1,000 women in the square that usually is the setting for military parades.

She said the incidence of rape of very young girls and teen-agers is on the rise, and that street children, domestic workers and the handicapped are among the most vulnerable.

Large numbers of police looked on as the women wearing white T-shirts saying, "It's time that the violence stopped" in the Amharic language chanted and waved placards.

Three nights of candlelight vigils preceded Saturday's rally, a remarkable event in a country where public demonstrations usually support the government.

In Africa in general, violence against women and girls is on the rise. In neighboring Kenya, newspapers are filled with stories of 2-year-old girls "defiled" by 60-year-old men.

From Addis Ababa to Johannesburg, women who refuse to turn over money to partners or husbands or are slow to prepare meals are routinely beaten or doused with kerosene and set on fire.

Sociologists and doctors attribute the rising violence in part to growing poverty, lack of jobs for young men and seething frustration fueled by alcohol and drugs.

The women's petition demanded that the penalty for rape be increased to a mandatory 20 years, and in exceptional cases, life in prison.

Those offenders who are arrested, tried and convicted are usually sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison. Most of the abuse goes unreported.

A brochure prepared by the protest committee said the abusers come from all walks of life and that a disturbing number are fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers and stepfathers of their victims.

Dr. Mulu Muleta of Addis Ababa's Fistula Hospital said a growing number of very young and young rape victims were being brought in for corrective surgery to deal with the incontinence that resulted from the abuse.

Of the 91 patients she has treated recently, Dr. Mulu said 18 were between 6 and 10 years of age and had either been raped or been given away in early marriage. The others were between 10 and 15 years old and had been given away in marriage.

"In rural areas, girls are given in marriage at an early age because of the pressure to conform to tradition and to ensure that the girl is a virgin at marriage," she said. "The marriages are arranged by parents or elders, and the decisions are based mainly on financial considerations."

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.

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