The troubling tale of underage female Ethiopians
Mekdes Teshome does not have a distinct memory of her birth place. She was of humble age when she left her rural village in Gondar area of the Amhara Regional State, some 800 km north of Addis Abeba. Her mother, too poor to offer her a proper childhood, gave her daughter up for a relatively better off aunt residing in Addis Abeba. An above average student, Mekdes was performing well academically in the public school she was enrolled. Then, things took an abrupt wrong turn when her aunt’s husband, a night guard, started abusing her sexually at her tender age. She was a fourth grader when she left her village.
Unlike many other child rape victims, Mekdes (name altered) had the wisdom and bravery to find someone to confide in; her cousin, daughter of the abuser, who was pregnant at the time. Her cousin thought it was better to bring, what then was nothing more than an allegation, to Mekdes’ school. As soon as the police were involved by the school, they began to investigate the accusations. Soon a rather bitter reality unfolded in front of Mekdes: the reality that homelessness was what was in the wait.
After the investigations were underway, “I spent a night at Gandhi [Memorial] Hospital. The next day the police officers came and told me we were going to some place. I didn’t know where,” the 15 year old told this magazine.
Mekdes ended up in one of the temporary shelters ran by a local non-governmental, Organization for Prevention, Rehabilitation and Integration of Female Street Children (OPRIFS). Lying on 840 square meters near Haya Hulet area, the shelter has three bedrooms, with 12 or 14 beds each, providing full accommodations for abused, trafficked and exploited children.
“We call our shelters ‘safe homes,’” says Zinash Bezabih‚ Executive Director of OPRIFS. “Because after going through such incredibly traumatic experiences‚ what these children yearn for is the feeling of safety. We do everything we can, andgive everything at our disposal to achieve that.”
Established nearly 15 years ago to combat violence against female children and support abuse victims, OPRIFS has been making interventions in the areas of prevention‚ protection and rehabilitation of the abused and trafficked female children. In 2014 the two ‘safe homes’ located in Addis Abeba have played host to 162 children, 65 of whom, including Mekdes, were sexually abused; 85 were trafficked while the rest were victims of physical and labor abuses.
At their stay, the children recieve counselling and therapy, alternative basic education‚ and life skill training. Reunification with family is prefered as a long term solution for the children when thier time at the shelter, four to six months on average for a child, is done. However, if, for instance, a child was sexually violated by a close family member, getting her back together isn’t a very nice idea, which, “makes our jobs trickier because most of the sexual abusers are family members or close kins,” Zinash tells this magazine.
The cycle of abuse
Despite being an overtly universal phenomenon, the most common sources of information to get insight to understand child sexual abuse are reported cases of the incidents. But this appears problematic as abuses within home, a primary setting for physical or sexual violence, at the hands of parents, close family members or kins often go unreported.
In Ethiopia, due to the lack of comprhensive study on the subject, the available information on child sexual abuse remains to be meager, fragmentary and anecdotal. Nevertheless, “[a] cross sectional study conducted in Addis Abeba identified child sexual abuse prevalence rate of 38.5 % among the general public, out of which 29 % were committed by victims’ family members and 68 % of them were victimized by the adults they know,” writes Jibril Jemal, author of the paper The Child Sexual Abuse Epidemic in Addis Abeba: Some Reflections on Reported Incidents, Psychosocial Consequences and Implications published in 2012 on the Ethiopian Journal of Health Science.
On a theoretical level, it is not unorthodox to explain the problem of child sexual abuse from the offenders’ perspective in the backdrop of the socio cultural context. Thus, it is argued that some cultures and traditions encourage patriarchal attitudes which tempt to regard women as sexual objects and nothing more. As a result, female children, for instance, may engage in sexual activities prior to thier adequate physical development, psychological readiness and worst of all without their concent; it wouldn’t alarm everyone. This is typically common in a country like Ethiopia where the custom of arranged marraige at a very young age is still prevalent.
The median age at first marraige among women, according to the latest Health and Demographic Survey (DHS) conducted in 2011 is 16.5 years, a slight improvement from 16.1 years, a figure pointed by the previous survey in 2005. By comaprison, the median age at first marraige for men is higher by almost seven years. Geographically, Addis Abeba, with 21.4 years has the highest median age at first marraige while the northern regional state of Amhara has the lowest, with 14.7 years.
Early marraige is among the reasons why girls and young female often flee thier rural homes and migrate to the urban hubs like Addis Abeba. Most of those who migrate to the city end up on the streets or find themsleves employed as commercial sex workers.
Some researches on the make up of child prostitution in the capital established that “most victims of commercial sexual exploitation found [on] the streets of Addis Abeba had been married when they were below 15 years of age.” Additionally‚ most of the child prostitutes come from provential areas to look for a job‚ due to conflicts at home, early marraige and divorce. Poverty, death of one or both parents and organized child trafficking were also key factors.
From domestic servitude to prostitution
In Sub-Saharan Africa, approximately one in every person is between the ages of 10 and 19. In Ethiopia, close to 47 % of the entire population is below the age of 15 years.The tens of millions of children, on whom the future of the country depends on, rightly deserves a safe, caring and protective environments to walk to adulthood. That, unfortunately, seems a little far fetched.
The Kampala Declaration signed in 2013 by 23 countries‚ including Ethiopia‚ defines child labor as a a denail of a child’s right to educationand work for which the child is too young or that is likely to harm the health, saftey and morals of children. The Declaration was set to work towards a child labor free zones.
In Ethiopia, a government pilot program, in collaboration with a local non-governmental organization, Forum on Sustainable Child Empowerment, in the cities of Addis Ababa and Adama, 100 km south of the capital, was expanded to additional three urban areas.
Article 89/ 5 of the Labor Proclamation allows children above the age of 14 to engage in hazardous works if the work is performed following a government approved vocational training course. However estimatessuggest that overall 27 % of the children aged 5-14 are involved in child labor.
According to the International Migration Organization (IOM), in-country trafficking of women and children from rural areas to urban centers is wideapread in Ethiopia. Women and children are trafficked chiefly to serve as domestic workers‚ weavers in the traditional weaving industry and prostitutes. Less frequent is the trafficking of children for farm labor and begging. The trafficked women and children, whose family members, relatives and acquaintances are often instrumental in the process, usually experience a recurrence of labor exploitations as well as physical and sexual abuses.
It is also common that young women and female children go into prostitution when the original purpose for migration to urban magnets fails.Article 182 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, which is ratified by Ethiopia, sites prostitution among the worst forms of child labor.
The curse of indolent laws
Speaking anonymously to this magazine, a practicing lawyer expresses his indignation on the vastness of the valley that separates laws written on golden inc and laws actually enforced when it comes to the rights of children. “We can find laws designed to make sure the rights and dignity of children is preserved. We can find articles in the Criminal Code, in the Labor Proclamation and above all in the Constitution. We are also bound to meet the requirements of the international conventions we have signed and ratified,” he says. “But the unfortnate truth is interprating laws into life still appears to be difficult for us.”
Ethiopia launched a National Human Rights Action Plan 2013-2015in October 2013 “to ensure the full implementation of fundamental and democratic rights guaranteed under the constitution.” However, there were some skeptics who raised doubts as to its ambitiousness versus the short amount of time set to accomplish its goals. Chapter four of the Action Plan is devouted to “The Righs of Vulnerable Groups”, including women and children. Aimed at strengthening the implementation of human rights, it sets to eliminate child labor within the given period of time. The document admitted widespread sexual violation and labor exploitation of children, as well as, illegal migration within the country.
“The vulnerability of children,” says the lawyer, “is not just a sociological or cultural issue. It is equally a human rights issue.” And the general level of awareness on human rights issues in the country, which “is appallingly low”, remains an extreme setback to turn things around in just few years, he says. But abusing or trafficking children essentially and primarily are criminal acts so “law enforcement officers should play the leading role.”
Documentation is yet another problem. In 2013, for example, the Federal Police’s Human Trafficking and Narcotics Section identified 133 cases of human trafficking and prosecuted 158 offenders. The Federal High Court, meanwhile, secured 100 convictions for trafficking in persons. However the data was not separated so as to clearify whether these cases involved female children.
For Zinash of OPRIFS‚ the rare cases in which children fleeing abuse, sexual or otherwise, encoutering agressions from law enforcement officers is undeniably worrying. “We believe, betterment in this regard is a result of an all encompassing effort. We need to change our psychological and sociocultural make up. That is why we have set up school based, family based and community based programs.”
In Ethiopia, besides the government, non-governmental organizations, faith based institutions, and individuals have been playing pivotal roles in the protection of children.
The formal government body structure to oversee the affairs of children has undergone numerous changes over the years. There was the Children Commission under the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, then the mandate went to the newly formed Ministry of Women’s Affairs now restructured as the Ministry of Women, Youth and Children Affair. Zinash feels bundling these three in one collusal ministry might pose inconviniences in terms of budget allocation and human resource management, which in turn might cloud the work of helping female children.
A matter of luck
Mekdes is eagerly awaiting for February this year, the time when the second semister of the Ethiopian academic year begins. After seven months at the temporary home‚ she is ready to start life afresh. Her abuser has been sentenced to jail and she has found a foster family that will accept her. “I don’t know what would become of me if I hadn’t come here,” she says. May be she would have been oneof the countless children wandering around the streets of Addis Abeba. Her glaring eyes tell that she knows she is lucky. But Tejitu Yewudneh isn’t.
A 15 year old, seventh grader, Tejitu lived in the rural town of Hagere Mariam,in the southern Ethiopia. Walking on a fateful day in October last year she was approached by a group of men who wanted to gang rape her. Luckily she survived the attempt. The cover up‚ however‚ might have changed her life forever. The offenders‚ who were charged in absentia, threw her down a gorge. She was paralyzed down her waist and is now lying on her aunt’s bed here in Addis Abebawaiting for some miracle to happen.
It seems about right to remember Eugene Owusu‚ the United Nations Resident Coordinator‚ who‚ speaking on the launch of Sixteen Days of Activism on Violence against Women on November 25the last year said,“It will not be eradicated until all of us – men and boys, husbands, fathers, brothers, teachers, religious leaders, police, community leaders, parliamentarians, and business owners – refuse to tolerate it.”
Mahlet Fasil contributed to the story
Photo: Addis Standard