Making Sense of Tragedy

Dear Woman Reader,

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear of a man raping a woman or a girl? If any of these questions come to mind, even uninvited, \”what was she doing out of her house [particularly if the rape occurred at night]\”?, \”what was she wearing?\” or \”I wonder what she did to provoke him \”, then I invite you to adopt an open mind and read on.

First, I will recount to you a horrific story that you may have heard on the radio or through social media over the last few days. Hanna Lalango, a timid tenth-grade student from a religious family living in the Ayer Tena area of Addis Ababa was kidnapped by a group of five men who brutally gang-raped her over a period of days and later dumped her in an undisclosed part of Addis Ababa. The damage that these men inflicted on Hanna\’s 16-year old body included blade wounds, and they were so severe that she died after spending a few days in the hospital.

Our collective tragedy is that Hanna had to die in order for us to know her name.

I have researched into violence for years, both through my PhD which looked into a context-specific manifestation of violence in Addis Ababa, and through the engagement of NGOs. I have learnt that rapes and even gang-rapes by multiple assailants, once too shocking to believe are now commonly heard. In any population, male rapists do not account for even one percent of the population but that doesn\’t mean we can ignore them as aberrations. After all, the men or teenage boys who violated Hanna to the point of death are Ethiopians, they are as much a component of our society as Hanna and her victimized family.

Nothing in the world will bring Hanna back to her family or restore her bright, educated future but that does not mean that we, as a nation, cannot learn from this tragedy of epic proportions. Let us build on this failure of our society to protect one of its weakest – a girl, on her way home to her family from school – to question where we got derailed.

We at Setaweet, a feminist project that aims to contribute to gender equality in Ethiopia believe that the key lies in investigating masculinity – what we, Ethiopian women and men understand is meant by being a man. Why is that? Because the focus, in discussing rape and other forms of sexual violence, has for too long been on the woman, on what she wore or said or did. The truth is that there is absolutely no justification for rape. We can all agree that Hanna did nothing to invite this tragedy upon herself, but what if she had worn a revealing outfit or was caught by her assailants while walking late at night? Would we still agree that she was completely blameless for this tragedy? I argue that only a society that completely objectifies women allows a man to argue that he thought her short skirt was an invitation for him to hurt her in the most intimate way possible. In addition, these arguments that somehow place the blame on the victim fall flat when we are discussing the rape of small boys or old women. And it is high time to stop hiding behind the \”what she wore\” and \”what she did\” to investigate why he did what he did. As the campaign by schoolgirls in the US put it, \”stop telling us to lower our skirts – teach your boys not to rape.\”

As members of an association committed to advancing women\’s leadership, AWIBers can share in the struggle to re-shape a society free from violence. We can join the activism sparked by Hanna\’s case, but as importantly, start looking at our own lives, the dynamics within our own families and our responses to reports of violence. If we, the most privileged of Ethiopian womanhood do not adopt the struggle, then who will? As our very own Nadia Waber, quoting the principles of Ubuntu often reminds us, \’\’If not us, then who? If not now, then when?\’\’

We are the change we have been waiting for.

Sehin Teferra
November 21, 2014