Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – Inside a gated home on the western outskirts of Ethiopia’s capital, a picture of Hanna Lalango is framed in a wreath of flowers just beginning to wilt around the edges.
The 16-year-old girl died on November 1, about a month after she entered a public mini-bus and was gang-raped by the strangers on board.
Hanna’s story is strikingly similar to a tragedy that took place in India two years ago, when another young woman boarded a bus, was raped by the passengers, and died from her injuries. That incident spawned a mass movement calling for an end to violence against women and impunity for perpetrators, making international headlines and sparking protests across the world’s most populous democracy.
But in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country, the reaction to Hanna’s death has so far been subdued.
Ethiopia’s economy has grown rapidly in recent years, and the country has made major progress on health and poverty initiatives over the past two decades.
But violence against women remains an entrenched and often taboo issue. Eighty percent of Ethiopians live in rural areas, where patriarchal customs often effectively turn women into second-class citizens.
In cities and towns, Ethiopian and foreign women alike complain of constant sexual harassment on the streets. According to the UN, Ethiopia ranked 121st out of 187 countries in terms of gender equality in 2013.
Hanna’s case was flying under the radar until Blen Sahilu, a young university lecturer and women’s rights activist, stumbled across a brief report on the attack buried in a local newspaper.
“I saw that the case was written off as something really simple,” Blen said. “I was shocked and first I called friends and asked, ‘Did you hear about this case?’ And no one had.”
Blen began raising awareness through The Yellow Movement, an activist group she leads at Addis Ababa University. Her followers on social media networks connected Blen with Hanna’s family, and soon she had posted enough information to make more people take notice.
The day of Hanna’s disappearance began like any other. “On that morning, she was doing chores as usual: making breakfast, cleaning the house,” said Hanna’s father, Lalango Hayesso. “I told her to go to school so she wouldn’t be late.”
Hanna was a good student – not stellar, but studious – who had promised her father that she would become a doctor one day.
Lalango waited for his daughter to come home at 4pm, but she never arrived. “We went to the police station. Then we prayed a lot. There was nothing else we could do.”
Eleven days later, Hanna finally called. “Where are you?” she asked when her father answered the phone. He asked her the same question. Family members tracked her down, bloodied and abandoned outside of a church, and rushed her to a hospital.
After a series of transfers from one healthcare facility to another, Hanna ended up at Zewditu Hospital in central Addis Ababa. The doctors did all they could, but after 22 days in treatment, she succumbed to her injuries.
“She came to us very late,” said Dr Abiye Gurmessa, a surgeon at Zewditu whose team worked around the clock to treat her genital injuries. “The wound area was deep and very much infected.”
During her final days, Hanna told her family she boarded a public taxi after school, and the men inside had taken her to one of their homes and raped her for several days before leaving her on the street.
The ensuing police investigation eventually brought some suspects to her hospital room. Lalango said she pointed out three of the alleged perpetrators, which led investigators to find two more. Five men are now in police custody, and investigations are ongoing.
Had his daughter survived, Lalango said he would not have made this case public, as the shame would have shadowed Hanna for the rest of her life. Women’s rights activists suspect this impulse to keep sexual assaults secret has caused gender-based violence to often go unreported.
“I’ve been working on these issues, so I thought I knew them. But I learned a lot of new things,” said Blen.
“Male friends started telling stories about them growing up as teenagers, and how common it was for guys to do this. There are euphemisms to describe it; they don’t call it gang rape. But they know it’s not consensual.”
On paper, Ethiopia can point to a number of initiatives to improve women’s rights. The constitution itself guarantees gender equality. New family laws passed in 2000 raised the legal age of marriage to 18 and gave wives greater control over marital property. And last year, Ethiopia launched a campaign in partnership with the UN to combat violence against women across the country.
Government spokesman Redwan Hussein said he does not foresee any policy changes resulting from Hanna’s case, and the government intends to stay the course. “Education must be going on, development must continue, and those who commit these crimes must be brought to court,” he said. “I think we are on the right track.”
But if policy changes are necessary, it would be hard to prove, given the lack of research documenting gender-based violence in Ethiopia. Past studies have painted a dreary picture, but limited sample sizes leave many questions unanswered.
Blen said she hopes Hanna’s case will spur interest in undertaking more research. “The long-term purpose should be to push for a comprehensive national study, so that’s what we are going to push for,” she said.
Zenaye Tadesse, director of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, said her group is working on a survey of its own.
“We’ve been thinking about undertaking different types of assessments on violence against women, but we have not been able to fund them,” she said.
Projects such as these are hampered by Ethiopia’s Charities and Societies Proclamation of 2009, which states without government permission, only organisations that receive less than 10 percent of their funding from abroad can work on human rights and gender-equality issues.
But Hanna’s story has shed new light on the plight of Ethiopia’s women. Civil society groups – underfunded though they are – are doing their best to build on that momentum.
‘Doesn’t happen again’
At a November 24 press conference on the case, audience members wept as Lalango described his daughter’s ordeal, and again when Zenaye recounted stories of past cases: A father who abused his young daughters for years, and a woman who died after her rapist penetrated her with electric tools.
Women in attendance shared stories of discrimination, and men called on each other to treat their female friends with respect. Attendees signed a petition to the government calling for better legislation on gender equality.
Lalango, a deeply religious Christian, is not as concerned with the political effects of Hanna’s tragedy. He said he only hopes other families won’t suffer as his has. Lalango has grown protective of his four daughters and young granddaughter, calling to check on them whenever he can.
“In our culture, it’s not like this. It’s not the right thing,” he said. “Maybe this was God’s message, a warning for other people – not only for Ethiopia, but for the whole world – so this doesn’t happen again.”