The brutal kidnapping and gang rape of a teenage student in Addis Ababa has spurred a movement against gender-based violence in Ethiopia and throughout the country’s diaspora communities.
Sixteen-year-old Hanna Lalango was abducted by a taxi driver and a group of passengers in Ethiopia’s capital on October 1 after she boarded the driver’s vehicle on her way home from school, according to local media reports, activists, and other sources who spoke with VICE News about the incident. A few days later, Lalango’s sisters received a call from the kidnappers, who offered to arrange a meeting to negotiate the release of their hostage.
When the sisters arrived at the meeting, they were asked to board the same taxi used for Hanna’s kidnapping in order to be taken to the house where she was held. The sisters refused, and the assailants drove off, shouting that Lalango would not be released. On October 11, Lalango called her father and directed him to the Kolfe Keraneo district in western Addis Ababa, where the kidnappers had abandoned her. She revealed that multiple men raped her repeatedly over a period of at least five days, and was reportedly able to identify three out of five suspects from her hospital bed. She received treatment at several hospitals in Addis Ababa, but died November 1 from wounds sustained during the attacks.
The incident galvanized activists on social media, and the hashtag #JusticeForHanna became a top trending topic on Twitter in Ethiopia. A “Justice for Hanna” page on Facebook has received more than 20,000 likes. Activists are now demanding that national press outlets in Ethiopia devote extensive coverage to Lalango’s case and the issues that surround it. The UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which was observed Tuesday, November 25, has also helped raise awareness of Lalango’s case.
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“Women’s rights organizations and concerned citizens are calling upon the media to move away from sensationalized reporting and move toward sustainable reporting in highlighting the systemic gaps that perpetuate such acts,” an author and women’s rights activist coordinating awareness campaigns about the incident in Addis Ababa, who requested anonymity, told VICE News.
Blen Sahilu, a former lecturer at Addis Ababa University who helped organize a November 24 press conference on the case, posted on Facebook that since Hanna’s trial started receiving media attention, other accounts of sexual assault have begun to surface in Addis Ababa. “In this past week alone I have heard of so many similar stories that I began to wonder where I have been all this time?” she wrote. “One girl here, another one there, a few more in that high school […] we are all in pain I guess.”
Sahilu, who could not be reached for comment, continued, writing, “Many families bury the secret and soldier on, perpetuating the myth that this is not such a big problem.”
According to a 2005 World Health Organization report, 71 percent of women in parts of Ethiopia have experienced some form of physical or sexual assault. While 75 percent of women interviewed for the study in Brazil, Namibia, Japan, and other countries said violence by men toward women was never justified, only 25 percent of the women interviewed from Ethiopia shared the same opinion.
Tigist Geme, a former lecturer at Addis Ababa University, wrote a column for Al Jazeera America about Lalango’s case, arguing that Ethiopia’s legal constraints on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are partly responsible for the lack of infrastructure to prevent and document violence against women in the country. Ethiopian researcher Rediet Yibekal Wegayehu, who reported on Lalango’s case for the blog Kweschn, told VICE News that critics of the country’s anti-NGO policy cite a 2009 law called the “Charities and Societies Proclamation” (CSP) as being especially harmful.
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The CSP forces NGOs operating in the country to register beneath one of three different NGO banners that divide national NGOs from international NGOs. International groups — including Amnesty International and the United Nations Human Rights Committee — have criticized the law for preventing human rights defenders and groups from collecting data on marginalized communities.
According to Zenebu Tadesse, Ethiopia’s Minister of Women, Children and Youth, the law was enacted to prevent foreign influence on national issues and the “worshipping” of foreign aid. But Amnesty International notes that the proclamation has had a “devastating impact,” as it prohibits international organizations from working on human rights issues in the country, and drastically curbs the amount of foreign aid that national human rights NGOs can receive.
As a result, prominent groups — such as the Ethiopian Human Rights Council and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association — have been forced to cut nearly 70 percent of their workforces. After the law was enacted, both groups had their bank accounts frozen, and they were denied access to nearly $500,000 in received foreign aid.
In response to Lalango’s death, the Network of Ethiopian Women’s Organizations is now collecting signatures for a petition that asks the country’s prime minister to create a special task force to monitor sexual assault cases within the country, establish a gender-based violence fund, and reformat the Charities and Societies Proclamation to allow more funding to women’s organizations helping victims of sexual assault, according to a VICE News source.
The incident has dovetailed with a number of high-profile sexual assault cases in neighboring countries that have recently brought international attention to violence against women in East Africa. In Sudan, the United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) came under fire for lagging in its investigation of reports that 200 women were raped by government soldiers in Darfur last month, and in Kenya hundreds of women protested in the streets of Nairobi after video of a local woman being stripped in public for wearing a miniskirt went viral a few weeks ago.
A trial against the five suspects accused of kidnapping Lalango began December 1, but according to VICE News sources, the public has been barred from attending.