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Another Day, Another Femicide: The Reality of Women in Ethiopia and the Vocal Silence of “Reformative Government”

In July 2023, a mother of two children was killed in a district courtroom in East Hararge zone, Oromia region. The hearing was held to render a decision on the victim's and her ex-husband's property division following their divorce. During the trial, the accused unexpectedly and repeatedly stabbed the victim in the chest and back, causing her death. As indicated in a report by the Ethiopian Media Services, the victim had been receiving death threats and intimidation, which she often reported to the police. The family told the reporters that the murder showed how much the criminal justice system failed to protect victims of gender-based violence (GBV).

One month later, a young lady who had just left her home in Mekelle City, Tigray region, to celebrate her friend's birthday was murdered by unknown people. The incident has been a hot topic of discussion on social media since nothing is officially clear as to who committed the crime and why. An eyewitness told the BBC that he initially saw a pickup truck fly by with its headlights on, and the moment he reached the place where the screams of people were heard, he saw a dead body.

The week following, a horrific femicide and gang rape was committed in Jigjiga city, Somali region. The victim was an 11-year-old girl, and the femicide was committed in her own home. The victim's father informed the BBC that it was his employees who killed his daughter. The report from Karamara General Hospital, where the victim’s body was taken for examination, confirmed that she was strangled. The Somali Regional Police Commission has announced that four suspects have been detained for allegedly gang-raping and murdering the teenager. The Commissioner told the BBC that those who committed the crime will be prosecuted and the family will get justice.

These are the threats that Ethiopian women face —in less than 40 days, three women were intentionally killed because of their gender. These incidents happened in Ethiopia, a country with its first female president, that recently undertook massive reforms to bolster women's political empowerment and where almost 42% of seats in parliament. 

Nevertheless, the Ethiopian government continues to fail to protect its women and chooses to ignore the obvious and everyday phenomenon of GBV. Indeed, the country has yet to legally distinguished femicide from homicide, and the application of a gender-based lens when investigating homicides of women remains the "Feminist’s Wish".

Ethiopia hides too many perpetrators of femicide, and many femicide cases still go uncounted and perpetrators go unpunished. 

It is no longer surprising to see the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) government’s damaging, if not dormant, attitude towards protecting women’s rights in general and killings targeting women and girls in particular. How the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, brushed off the flaring issue of rape in his public statements is an example of the government’s apathy. On March 21, 2020, during a parliamentary session in which he was questioned on sexual violence in Tigray, the PM replied, "The women in Tigray? These women have only been penetrated by men, whereas our soldiers were penetrated by a knife". After such a dangerous public speech, the PM neither publicly apologized nor polished his depraved statement.

What is femicide? Simply put: femicide is the killing of a woman or girl because of her gender. The UN Economic and Social Council Vienna Declaration on Femicide (2012), recognized different forms of femicide, including the murder of women because of intimate partner violence; targeted killing of women and girls in the context of armed conflict; female infanticide and gender-based sex selection feticide; genital mutilation related deaths and many more. 

Like all forms of GBV against women and girls, femicide is a problem that affects every country and territory across the globe. According to a report in 2021, Africa recorded the second-largest number of female intimate partner and family-related killings, with an estimated number of 17,200. Ethiopia is no different; according to the country’s Demographic and Health Survey 2016, the national prevalence of lifetime physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence was 28%. In 2021, Ethiopia ranked 113 as the most dangerous country for women, with a Women, Peace, and Security Index score of 0.668. African countries like Mauritius (64) Rwanda (66) and South Africa (66) ranked as the top three African countries with a higher index score. Nevertheless, there is no structured available data whatsoever when it comes to the homicide rate, both intimate and non-intimate partner homicide.

What Should Be Done Then? “Stop sitting and crying with us, do something with your power”

It is time to stop considering these cases against women as only murder—it differs in a significant way. By simply scanning the most recent cases, it’s easy to realize that they are either committed by partners or ex-partners or involve some sort of domestic abuse, sexual violence, or situations where the killing was intentional, and the victim was targeted because of her gender. The criminal code of Ethiopia, particularly the sexual violence and homicide sections, needs reforming in a way that clearly identifies violence against women and incorporates the different types and elements of sex crimes and their respective rationalized punishments. Studies suggest that substantive and sustained decreases in GBV can be achieved through comprehensive laws and policies.

Even though ending femicide requires the commitment of society, the government has a primary responsibility to protect the safety and well-being of women in Ethiopia. 

Despite widespread cases of femicide, the killing of women and girls is not accurately tracked. The systematic collection and availability of comprehensive disaggregated data is important to designing well-informed prevention, protection, and response mechanisms. An article written in Policy Options magazine argues that failure to collect data should not be a defense against femicide. It is true that in developing countries like Ethiopia, data remains difficult to access and collect, yet the lack of such data is putting the lives of women and girls at risk, deemphasizing the prevalence of the problem, and underscoring the need for urgent action. 

Ethiopia hides too many perpetrators of femicide, and many femicide cases still go uncounted and perpetrators go unpunished. The little we do know is limited to cases related to killings perpetrated by an intimate/former partner or people somehow affiliated. Other contexts beyond the private sphere, such as femicide linked to harmful traditional practices and armed conflict require further in-depth coverage. However, what we have been learning from social media and independent news outlets in Ethiopia is just the tip of the iceberg.

Why is continued activism important? In many cases, prevention initiatives engaging community members at all levels are the best approaches to addressing sexual violence and, in particular, femicide cases. Studies propose the activism of women’s rights and community-based groups as a means to deal with the prevention, mitigation, and response aspects of femicide. The up-to-date role of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and women-based organizations such as the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA), Network for Ethiopian Women Association (NEWA), the Ethiopian Women Human Rights Defenders Network, as well as emerging feminist movements exemplify the commitments such institutions are undertaking and their potential to drive policy change, hold governments accountable, and lead movements to end femicide. 

Even though ending femicide requires the commitment of society, the government has a primary responsibility to protect the safety and well-being of women in Ethiopia. The government should enact and enforce laws that explicitly criminalize femicide and other forms of legally unrecognized gender-based violence. The government should also collect and analyze data on femicide and related violence against women. For instance, the only publicly available country’s demographic and health survey dates back to 2016, yet such data is crucial for understanding the scope of the problem, identifying trends, and evaluating the effectiveness of policies and programs. 

Furthermore, efforts to prevent and address femicide should include comprehensive data collection, analysis, and reporting to understand the extent of the problem, identify trends, and develop effective policies and interventions. More evidence-based and focused research is required to better understand the ever-increasing femicide rate in Ethiopia and propose systematic solutions to better address the very simple plea: “Please do not kill us.” 

Wubrest F. Adamu is an LL.M. student at Georgetown University Law and a Leadership and Advocacy for Women in Africa (LAWA) program fellow from Ethiopia. Wubrest is a human rights lawyer and has worked with UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Ethiopian Human Rights Council.

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center’s Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

About the Author

Wubrest F. Adamu

LL.M. student at Georgetown University Law and LAWA Program Fellow

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more