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Kidnapped. Raped. Married. The extraordinary rebellion of Ethiopia's abducted wives

Johann Hari on Ethiopia's forced marriages

Wednesday 17 March 2010 01:00 GMT

Every woman remembers her wedding day with a tear in her eye – but, here in Ethiopia, the tears are different, and darker, and do not stop. Nurame Abedo is sitting in her hut high in the clouds, remembering the day she became a wife. She lives hundreds of miles into the countryside, thousands of feet above sea-level, in the hills of the bridal-kidnapping capital of the world. For 40 years, she didn't talk about her wedding, or how it came to happen. If she tried, she was beaten by her captor, who said good women never speak of such things. So she tells her story slowly, haltingly, her sentences punctuated by sudden high-pitched laughs that seem to erupt involuntarily from her gut.

Nurame was in her bed when she was woken by an angry mêlée. In her family's hut there were grown men – an incredible number, 10 or more, all in their 30s, all standing over her father, shouting. They reached for her. At night here, where there is no electricity, perfect darkness falls, and everything becomes a shadow-play of barely visible flickers. But even though she was eight years old, she suspected at once what was happening. She had heard whispers that, when a girl is considered ready for marriage, a man will seize her, and rape her, and then she must serve him for the rest of her life. "That was the culture," she says. But it wasn't her culture: like all the other little girls, she didn't want it. "I started screaming and tried to run out of the hut," she says. "I hid in the trees – hah! – but one of the men found me."

She was taken back to his home, held down in front of his family, raped, and taken to be married the next morning. Dazed, she signed the papers, and waited for a moment when she could flee.

After three days, he finally left her alone in the hut. She ran for miles barefoot back to her family, wanting to return to her life, and to her childhood. She hurried through the door, weeping with joy. "But my father told me that now I had had sex with him, nobody else would want me because I was ruined goods, and I had to go back to him and be a good wife," she says. "My mother was very sad but she said it was true. I thought then, 'I have to do this. I have no choice'. I just prayed to God, 'Please help me, please...' I went back. Soon after that I was pregnant, and what could I do? Hah! Now many years have passed and I have six children. Life is hard for a woman. Hah!" She is crumpled now, her walk halting, her face creased. She stares past me, to where white wisps of cloud are swirling past the bare, bright-red soil.

Nurame has a distant sense of another life, one she will never lead now. "If it hadn't happened to me ... I would have been educated and got my own work and lived my own life. I wish to God that had happened." Her laugh erupts again, like a muffled scream. "Maybe I could have been happy. Now I am old. I have to be happy – at least I have children; I love them." She adjusts her black bandana and looks down. But then she says suddenly: "My husband is a good man. He does not beat me now. I love him. He is a very good man." She gives a big gap-toothed smile of apparent sincerity.

All the old women I meet – abductees for a lifetime – insist on this upbeat ending, in almost identical language, after recounting their tales of rape. "It is only hard for the first five years," one of them tells me, quite seriously. I think of Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian girl held in a cellar for eight years, and who now grieves for her captor who killed himself. She has bought the house he imprisoned her in and reportedly sits in his cellar, alone. As I leave Nurmae, I ask her how she would feel if one of her daughters was abducted. Her face hardens. "I would find her. I would get her back." I wait for the awkward laugh, but this time it doesn't come. She stares, determined.

In Ethiopia, Nurame's story happens every day. In 2003 – the last year for which statistics are available – the National Committee on Traditional Practices of Ethiopia found that 69 per cent of marriages begin like this, with the triple-whammy of abduction, rape, and a forced signature. In a country with a mixture of Protestant, Catholic and Muslim, all religions practise it equally.

These stories have been sealed away for millennia, behind masks of pain and repression, but sometimes there are moments when history suddenly accelerates – and this is one of them. Across the fields and huts of this country, a mass rebellion of abductee-brides has broken out over the past decade. Ethiopian women have started to refuse to watch their sisters disappear into servitude. They are fighting back – and now they are asking for our help.

I Honey, honey

"Yes, I kidnapped several of my wives," says the tall, thin market trader, in a bland matter-of-fact tone. Abebe Anebo is a wiry 45-year-old man, with sunken eyes that are partially concealed in the shade of a grubby white baseball cap. He makes his living selling pots crafted from the earth by his seven captive-brides and his 25 children. He is returning from market when I meet him, leaving tracks in the muck. It has been raining for days, and the land seems to have erupted with wild green foliage and molten mud everywhere. Everyone is slipping and sliding. Like many men here, he sees nothing wrong with kidnapping a woman – indeed, he claims it is a sign of love.

"I used to see her in the market where I sell pots," he says fondly of the first woman he took. "She was beautiful. I never talked to her, but I loved her. One Monday I called my friends and we picked her up and took her to the car and away with us." What did she do? "She cried but once she was in the car she shut up. I knew her family and I wanted to be part of it – it's a good family. I told her cousin I was going to take her and he said it was fine." He says it as though he is describing buying a tin of beans.

I try to match his casual tone as I ask 'Did you rape her?' He laughs. It is not an embarrassed laugh, but an anticipatory guffaw, and he leans towards me, like he is about to offer a punchline. "I got her to sleep in the hut between me and the fire. The fire was very hot. In the end she had to come closer to me!" With that he cracks up, and all the men standing around laugh with him. I repeat the question 'So did you rape her?' "Yes, I did, obviously," he says, as though I am grouchily missing the gag.

What was married life like? "Once she was abducted, she fell into line. She lived her life. She made pots. She did what she had to. A man is like honey, honey to a woman – once she has honey, she is happy." She died in an accident a few years ago, he says. At a wedding, somebody shot a pistol in the air in celebration, and the bullet came back to earth and hit her between the eyes. Fortunately, he had seized a second wife, so he wasn't left alone.

But he grieves for that wife because she was a good worker. "Women are our factories. They work for their husbands. They cultivate land, they make pots, they treat animal skins... A woman should obey. If I tell one of my wives to do something, she does it." Why should she? "That's life. Even if I became a cripple, she would obey me. She is a woman. They like it."

But if women want it, why abduct them? Why not just ask? He is finding these questions grating now. He looks to the other men and smirks a little, then looks back at me. "This is how we did it! I thought it was normal. Our ancestors did it, our grandfathers did it, our fathers did it. My mother was kidnapped by my father." He admits that, yes, his mother sometimes cursed this fact, but that is just proof of her generally lazy and ungrateful nature. "She had a wealthy family, so when she was with them she was very lazy, and very proud that she didn't have to work. When my father took her she had to work, and she was always bitter and angry about that. She just had to get on with it though." How would he feel if one of his daughters was abducted? "I'd pity the poor man who took her!" he says, and everyone falls about laughing again.

But then suddenly the conversation slams into a 180-degree reverse, as it seems to everywhere on this subject. He says, with a solemn look: "I think abduction is illegal now. It's bad, you shouldn't do it. It's wrong." He says this with great solemnity, as if describing the death of a loved one. I'm confused: you just said a minute ago that women like it. He shouts: "Nowadays men have to be different! If I kidnap a woman now I'll probably be punished!" Then his tone shifts again, just as quickly and just as entirely. He warmly shakes me by the hand, bumps his shoulder against mine – a sign of affection – and continues on his way.

For days, none of this seems real to me. I drive along long clear roads where my vehicle is always the only car, and watch the women huddled together, walking miles for water, or food, or the market. They wear bright shimmering clothes, and, despite their look of pure and perfect exhaustion, they often smile and wave as I pass. Are they really captives? I watch the men strolling and joking and drinking. Are so many really kidnappers? Are they kidnapping tonight?

II Blackout

I uncover the story of how the fight-back began in the middle of a blackout – both electrical, and political. The capital city, Addis Ababa, has been without electricity for three days. Nobody is surprised. Nobody expects it to come back any minute. Nobody listens to the explanations from the dictatorship on the radio – the power plant is failing because wicked contractors inexplicably ripped off the government, and the government is doing all it can to stop this sabotage etcetera. No: the people are irritated instead because, one-by-one, their mobile phones are dying. With no way to recharge, the city's cell network is falling silent, and nobody can find their friends. The city is slowly getting lost.

In the middle of this darkness, Boge Gebre is sitting in her office, working. (Her name is pronounced Bo-gay.) She is the woman who began the rebellion of Ethiopian women – and at first glance, this is not improbable. She is slim and tall, like a weapon. When she was born in the early 1950s, she was expected to have the same life as Nurame. She says: "Women were regarded as no better than the cows they milked. We have round houses made from mud, and within each home there is a strict division. One side is for the men, and other is for the women and the animals.

"My mother's life was a nightmare. I don't know how she survived," she adds, looking down. "She was a very intelligent, very wise woman – but all her life she was abused and beaten – for nothing. She had her back stooped, her legs broken, her jaw broken, even though she did everything right. It was a nightmare, but for her it was a life. And somehow she still smiled. When there is no alternative, you somehow accept this as all you will get. In that situation, many women accept their situation as God-given, not man-made."

When Boge was 12, she was pinned down and had her genitals cut out with a knife. This is called "circumcision" – but it is actually mutilation, and it nearly caused her to bleed to death. It is part of a system that sees a woman's sexuality as something to be scraped and raped away. Afterwards, all that remains is scar tissue, with a little piece of wood inserted so urine can still pass through a tiny hole. This happened to all Boge's sisters too – and it killed one of them. When she came to give birth, her vagina had no elasticity, and the baby could not pass through the mess of poorly-healed scarring between her legs. "They couldn't pull out the baby," Boge says, "so they both died." Men came to abduct Boge twice – but both times she ran away before they could rape her. "So – here I am!" she says.

When she was told this was her culture and she had to accept it, she found the argument ridiculous. "I thought – how can this be my culture, if it kills me?" she says, leaning forward. "What is culture? It is something that is constantly changing. In Europe, you burned witches. That culture changed. Every woman has a sense of her own dignity. I knew I was not a cow, a chattel, and I did not want to be treated like one. No woman wants to be abducted or cut up. This is true whatever your culture. Culture is not stagnant – it is transient."

One day, as a little girl, she was sent to stay overnight with one of her cousins when she saw the Amharic alphabet on the wall. She knew that, when she went home, she would not be allowed to see it again – her father beat her mother for even suggesting she go to school – so she sat up all night and memorised all 268 characters. Not long after, she ran away to a missionary school – they were amazed she knew the alphabet – and became the first girl in her village to be properly educated. They helped her get a scholarship to go to high school in Addis Ababa, and then she got another, to study microbiology in Jerusalem. From there, she was given a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Massachusetts. She saved any money she could from her grants and sent them back to her mother, who built a house with them. The village was in awe – a woman, providing for her family?

Boge knew she could have stayed in America, and tried to forget all this. "Yes, I could have had a better house and gone jogging on the beach or gone to a spa every weekend. But is that what life is all about? Could I have stayed there knowing my sisters were being cut and abducted and turned into servants? Einstein said you start living when you give yourself out. I feel I'm living now."

So she went back to Kembatta in the 1990s. "I knew the women themselves wanted to change it. Women don't lack brains, we only lack opportunity – to go to school, to be free and independent, to make our own choices." She went to the church – hers is a Protestant area – and asked to address the congregation.

She talked about HIV/Aids. Many men were shocked: they considered it an affront, a dirty subject. Afterwards the elders told her to forget about all that because the biggest problem in the area was the nearby gorge: kids couldn't cross it to get to the nearest school, and traders couldn't pass it to get to market. She knew she would gain credibility if she solved it – so she provided the cement and the iron bars and within a few months there was a bridge. "That bridge connected the village to the other side of the gorge," she says, "but it also connected me to their hearts."

So she suggested a bolder plan. She set up local assemblies where anyone could speak about the problems in the area – a place where old men and young girls could address each other as equals. Everybody said it was impossible, ridiculous, unthinkable. But she pressed on and established an organisation called Kembatti Mentti Gezzima-Tope (KMG) – Kembatta Women Standing Together – and began organising the villages. Steadily, one-by-one, the assemblies happened, and at first women made mild and modest demands (from our point of view, at least). Couldn't men and women sit together in public? Couldn't girls stay at school as long as boys? Couldn't women become elders too, and decide on the affairs of the community?

On a torrentially rainy Sunday, I watch an assembly happen, in a classroom that seems to be in the process of being slowly smothered by vast, outsized plants. An old man stands up and says humbly: "Before KMG came, a woman never sat with a man. She wasn't even allowed to sit with her husband at meals. First the man ate, then the woman ate. Women were nothing. Things are better now, I can see that." A cacophony follows – of girls talking about the need for contraception, and abortion, and Aids tests, and men agreeing.

As the meetings went on over the years, their demands for equality swelled. Why should women's vaginas be mutilated? They screened a video of a female "circumcision" taking place for the men. One passed out; four vomited. "The rebellion just grew and grew," Boge says. At a wedding in 2003, the bride and all her bridesmaids wore signs saying: "I am uncircumcised." It was a Spartacus moment, and the women here weep as they remember it.

Bridal abductions have been technically illegal since 2005, but, outside the capital, the law is interpreted very loosely by the police and judges. When a 13-year-old girl called Woineshet Zebene Negash became the first Ethiopian ever legally to challenge a bridal abduction, the judge at her trial said: "What is the problem? He loves you – that's why he abducted you." He added she probably wasn't a virgin before the kidnapping – the medical tests were inconclusive – and so it couldn't be rape because "nobody wants to rape a girl who isn't a virgin". Even the girl's defence attorney said in court: "I think [she] was, like, 'Please rape me'."

But in these new forums, women began to speak about their terror of being kidnapped – and Boge was there to explain that KMG would ensure any man who committed it went to prison. She would harangue the police until they acted. KMG began to raise money from abroad – Boge says the money from the British charity Comic Relief (which spends the money raised through Sport Relief) was "a lifesaver".

But, just as light seemed to be breaking through, a bitter backlash began. One morning, a village elder awoke to find his 13-year-old daughter was missing. He had been a prominent convert against bridal abduction – and now, he was told, the men of the area were "taking revenge" for "undermining our culture". Boge would not let the police rest until they found her – and once the girl was rescued, the local women refused this time to say she was dirty and ruined and shun her. Not this time. Not this girl. Samiya Abebe, now a small 15-year-old girl in an outsized women's suit, tells me softly: "He grabbed me at the market and had my vagina mutilated and..." She can't bring herself to say much more. After he and his brothers held her captive for three months, she was pregnant. Before the rebellion, she would have become another Nurame, and faced a lifetime serving her rapist. "Actually, I would have killed myself," she says, with certainty.

But when she ran back, she was running into a transformed culture. Her family said it wasn't her fault and she was "brave and brilliant" for escaping. A group of girls her age who went to the KMG meetings arranged to walk with her to school and back every day so she wouldn't be scared. "They bought me presents – soap and schoolbooks – and said they wouldn't let anyone be mean to me... Now people know a girl can be kidnapped and come back – and live." Her baby was adopted. After all this, she came seventh out of 110 students. "If I finish my education, I can still be the woman I want to be," she says, and beams.

What is replacing abduction? The younger women say they want to choose their own husbands, with a firm, decisive nod. But when I ask the men, they disagree. "I will decide whom [my daughter] marries, and I will expect a high bridal price because my daughter is beautiful – 50 cows," one father tells me. I ask Awano Busmalo, the man who resisted bridal abductions so fiercely his own daughter was kidnapped, and even he says: "I will choose her husband. I will make sure he is HIV-negative and has enough money to provide," he says. And will his daughter be allowed to refuse to marry a rich, HIV-negative man? "No. That is my decision," he says. In his stare, I see that eradicating abductions is the start of the story of freeing Ethiopian women, not its climax.

The lights outside Boge's office – and across Addis Ababa – blink on for a moment, and then vanish again. She says: "I know if this progress is going to last, I have to change all of the community – including the men." It led her towards a man nobody saw as her ally – and a startling conversion.

III St Paul?

As I skid along the mud-streets of Kembatta with Alemu Dutbecho Kinole, women hail him everywhere. They cross the road to clasp his hand; with moist eyes, they cry "Thank you! Thank you!" He is a 39-year-old man with a slight beard, a leather jacket, and an intense, stooped stare. He looks creased, like he has been stored away in an old suitcase for years. He acknowledges their thanks with a nod, and a rat-a-tat-tat of questions about their lives today. "He rescued me from being cut!" one woman beams. "He saved my cousin from abduction," another adds. This is not how anyone thought Alemu's life would turn out – since he used to be Kembatta's most notorious bandit, and a kidnapper of women.

Alemu speaks in a low, catarrh-clogged growl, the result of a problem with his chest that no doctor here has been able to diagnose. He always sounds like he is hissing – and when he describes his past, this seems oddly appropriate. We sit in the sun in the hills and he lets loose a long monologue: "I took my wife by force in 1994. She was engaged to somebody else. I negotiated [with her family] for her but I lost to another man. So I used my Kalashnikov. I went to market with my Kalashnikov and I said if she didn't come with me I'd kill her. She came, there was no choice. I put her in my uncle's house and she was kept there. Her family refused to negotiate for her so I went with two grenades and I said if you don't negotiate I will blow you and your house up. They agreed and we were married. I thought, 'I love her, this is how you do it'. I didn't care if she loved me or not. On the second day she might escape, so on the first day you rape her."

He had been taught to seize and to steal, always. He was conscripted into the Ethiopian army by the communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam when he was 14 and sent out to fight against the rebel guerrillas. "I was very frightened, and every day I thought I would be killed," he says. They lived by seizing from the people at gunpoint. "I was fighting hot battles – there was a lot of violence." Once he was demobilised from the army, he just carried on living the same way – raiding passers-by and villages, and living off the proceeds. "I robbed so many people it is a miracle I am still alive," he says. Violence was how he ate and drank – and married.

When Boge first arrived in this area, he was sceptical. Why are these women trying to change the way things have worked here for as long as anyone can remember? What good can come of it? "I went to see the video of the circumcision taking place, and I was shocked. I didn't know it was so violent, so bloody. That was the first time I began to think," he says, lighting a cigarette. His wife – who was only 16 when she was seized – began to attend the KMG meetings and talk about the feelings she had long interred. When I meet her, Desalech Alema says bluntly: "I had been angry for a long time. I went with him because I had no choice. He raped me. I was crying so I couldn't shout for help. I wanted to run back to my family but he threatened to shoot me. Then I could say some of this."

Alemu nods, and says: "I hadn't ever thought in this way. I changed. When I heard about abductions, I began to weep. I felt guilty." Desalech breaks in: "He became a better husband. He started fetching water for me, and being kind." He laughs: "I am always checking to make sure she is fat! I want her to be very well-fed!" They both giggle, sharing a long glance.

The transformation seems so vast and so sudden that, for days, I find it hard to credit. Is it opportunistic? How could he not have known that abduction harmed women, and that it was wrong? Didn't he hear her screams? And yet it's not as if every man makes this show of repentance. The Kembatta Zonal Prison has a large guard-tower made of rusty sheet metal and barbed wire. But once the guards let you pass, it seems incongruous – a long rolling patch of greenery with a few white dorm huts with cows strolling around casually in the sun, flicking away flies with their tails. Swaying upbeat African music is blaring from a radio, while, in the corner, some prisoners are chopping wood. "I will bring you the kidnapper," says a female guard merrily.

They bring Zemach Subego into the prison office. He is a long-faced, long-limbed 22-year-old man who seems to feel no embarrassment about the reason why he is here serving a seven-year sentence. "I helped my cousin kidnap a girl," he says casually. "He loved her and he wanted to marry her. I don't see it as a crime. I didn't know it was supposed to be wrong. We offered her family an ox [as a bridal-price]." He rubs his thighs with his palms and smirks. "How could I know it was a crime? It is how my father got married. I didn't think the law would get involved." When I ask how the girl feels about it, he chuckles: "I am sure she is waiting for us when we get out! Who else will marry her now?" He laughs, and the guards laugh, and soon the whole room is in stitches. Outside, a cow hears the noise, and moos cheerfully.

When I come out, I look at Alemu differently. I watch him dart from meeting to meeting – one lobbying the police to prosecute abductions, another helping girls arrange workshops to stop genital mutilation. There is an intensity and frenzy to it that seems authentic – an act of manic repentance. I think of the story of St Paul, who persecuted Christians, only to become their defender. In a pause between meetings, Alema stands with me, and smokes. "I think a man can learn," Alemu says, and then corrects himself: "I think a man must learn."

IV Exodus

In Kembatta – the area where KMG is based – they have slashed the rate of bridal abductions by more than 90 per cent. Because of them, Nurame's daughters and grand-daughters will not rerun their mother's story in an endless recurring loop of misery. "It shows cultures can change when women are given a chance," Boge says. She stresses "we couldn't have done it" without the support of the money raised through Sport Relief. I think of all the kids doing sponsored runs and all the people calling up to make donations. The cynicism – the money doesn't get through, it'll never make a difference – is, in this place, this time, flat-out wrong. Now they need more money to save more girls: there are areas where the abductions remain endemic – and there is an added reason to act fast.

In theory, the Ethiopian government supports moves to eradicate bridal abduction: they know the country cannot develop if half its population is terrorised and not free. But a new law threatens to wipe out the progress that has been made – and effectively to dismantle the women's organisations.

Ethiopia has been slipping in a political mudslide towards being a police state for years. Ask a taxi driver or a random person on the street what he thinks of the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, and he looks jolted and afraid. He will mumble a non-committal phrase – such as "He is our leader, yes" – and try to get away from you a soon as possible. The press serves up only the gruel of propaganda, pre-approved by the regime. As a former Marxist guerrilla, Zenawi was never a true democrat, but political freedoms have been in freefall since the last election. Critics of the regime and opposition politicians vanish into torture-jails and emerge lame and silent years later. There has been an exodus of Ethiopians who work in human rights, and they are now scattered across the globe.

To a dictator, any self-organising, self-confident community is a threat to be dispersed – even if the community is organising to achieve a goal the regime shares. If the people can talk to each other, there is a risk they will talk against the dictator. So last year, the Ethiopian government passed one of the most restrictive laws anywhere in Africa. They banned international human rights groups, saying it is "imperialist" to check to see if Ethiopians are being kidnapped or tortured. At the same time, they passed a law saying all Ethiopian human rights groups need to raise 90 per cent of their income inside the country. In practice, this means most of them have all but shut down.

The Ethiopian Women's Lawyers Association (EWLA) has been the great legal champion opposing abduction and genital mutilation. Now its leaders are in exile, unable to help anyone here. At first, its senior figures nervously refuse to talk to me. When one finally agrees to meet for coffee in an Addis Ababa café, she speaks only in oblique, fractured sentences, as if a secret policeman is standing over her shoulder. (I won't give her name, for obvious reasons.)

"More than 80 per cent of our staff have had to be laid off," she says, but adds quickly: "It is not a problem of government." The most she will say is there are still "some bad judges". When the interview is over, she seems physically to relax, her shoulders finally rolling out of a tense hunch.

KMG has been classified as a "humanitarian" rather than a "human rights" organisation – at every turn, it stresses it doesn't oppose the government, but only wants to hold it to the standards it says it sets for itself – so for now it can still raise international funds. But nobody knows when that too could be choked off – so the time to give is now.

On my final day in Ethiopia, Alemu takes me to meet a group of girls he has helped rescue from abductors. They do not have the broken incoherence of the older women I met, who have never known freedom. They talk about becoming doctors and lawyers and teachers; they meet my eye, and argue back to the men around them. When darkness begins to settle, we watch them disappear into the distance, joking and laughing among themselves. Alemu sucks on his cigarette with a hard wheeze and says: "If somebody had abducted Boge, what would this area look like now?" He shakes his head, and looks away.

Some names have been changed to protect the identities of the women involved

The Sport Relief Weekend takes place from Friday 19 to Sunday 21 March and brings the entire nation together to get active, raise cash and change lives. The money raised through Sport Relief is spent by Comic Relief to help poor and disadvantaged people, living unimaginably tough lives, both at home in the UK and across the world's poorest countries. Sport Relief cash supports projects like KMG in Ethiopia to empower communities in support of the rights of women and girls to be free of harmful customary practices and other forms of abuse. To sign up and get sponsored for the Sainsbury's Sport Relief Mile go to sport; the Sport Relief big night of TV is broadcast on Friday 19 March from 7pm on BBC 1.

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