Sun, Sep 26, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Ethiopia tolerates abduction marriages


Teenage girls who were abducted for rape and `marriage' are seen at a shelter in Arsi, eastern Ethiopia, earlier this month.


Chaltu Jeylu lost her childhood brutally, abruptly and painfully at age 13 in what many Ethiopians call "marriage." A would-be-suitor abducted her with the help of a gang of friends.

For the next two months, Chaltu recounted, the 24-year-old man locked her in a house in rural Ethiopia and raped her until she became pregnant.

"I didn't love him," the quiet, round-faced girl said, her weary, expressionless face evidence of the psychological torment she has endured. "For me, the important thing is to love the man I shall be with."

Abducting young girls for marriage is a tradition as arcane as it is commonplace in this corner of the Horn of Africa, where male dominance and a strong stigma against the victims mostly allow the perpetrators to go unpunished.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that more than 70 percent of marriages in Ethiopia are by abduction, and that in Arsi, the remote region where Chaltu is from, the figure is as high as 80 percent.

Residents say men often see kidnapping as a cheap way to get a wife, since parents demand as much as US$400 in dowry for virgin girls. A girl who was abducted and raped, however, can be had for as little as US$50 and a horse, because the families think no one else but the abductor -- often 10 to 15 years older -- will marry her.

For victims like Chaltu, now 14, the trauma of rape and abduction is accompanied by the fear of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"They may well be infected," said Rahel Worku, a nurse at a government-run health center where girls receive help. "It is a very high risk, but we have no testing facilities, so we do not know."

Abductions take place in other African countries, but they are usually acts of war: the capture of women for rape or boys to turn into child soldiers. In Ethiopia, kidnapping has long been part of marriage custom, a tradition of sorrow and violence whose origins are murky.

Rahel stands next to Samara Umare -- a 12-year-old who was abducted last February while collecting water for her family -- as she explains how the abducted girls are often beaten into submission.

Samara's fingers were broken and her left arm is now paralyzed. She rarely speaks now, Rahel said.

The psychological wounds are deepened by the stigma of being labeled Gusumeti -- a derogatory local term meaning a non-virgin. Even people whose job it is to help the girls often share prevailing attitudes about the victims as tainted goods.

"Could I marry a girl who was rescued from abduction?" Tsegaye Ayane, regional deputy education chief, said with a laugh. "No, there would be too much shame for me."

Laws forbidding abductions that carry prison sentences of up to 25 years do little to deter kidnappers.

Chaltu, who told her story at the health center in the village of Kalu, about 230km east of Addis Ababa, eventually fled her abductor, an act that earned her ostracism from her village and most of her family.

Her "husband" is free and faces no charges. His friends have threatened to break Chaltu's arm if she pursues a case against him.

Chaltu's father, who lives in a small village more than an hour away from the nearest telephone, says his daughter brought shame on the family. Only her mother supported her decision to escape.

"I am frightened that the man is still free," said Chaltu, flanked by other girls who fled abductors. "It is upsetting because people support him and seem to blame me for what has happened. They say I broke the tradition of the community because I did not stay with him."

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