Girls of Ethiopia Struggle between Water and Virginity

Girls from villages, constantly have more struggles in life when compared to others whose lives are different due their dwelling locations. In the country Yeshi was born and lives in, men don’t share house chores even in its big cities; and even worse it is in the villages of this country – Ethiopia.

The village girls have to go far to fetch water in a ‘gembo’ – a vessel made of clay that is used to collect water; they have to help the farmers with removing weeds when the harvest grows; they have to carry food for their family members working in the farms; they have to collect and carry heavy loads of firewood for the huts; they have to attend to their livestock and milk the cows; and they have to help their mother in the household tasks, and in preparing the family meals.

When traveling to fetch water and fire woods, the girls go in a group. They sing their traditional songs while walking. Though they are set for a hard task, these girls make use of the time to chat happily and be free from the rest of the world. Yet, most of the time, their smiles disappear soon, when the girls encounter evil in the form of shepherds who hide behind bushes to snatch these young ones away to fulfill their lustful desires. While the ‘gembo’ falls from the hands of the girls smashing into pieces, their chastity and dignity become crushed forever.

Girls who have been abused sexually fail to reveal the truth or identify the perpetrators due to shame, and for the fear of being excluded from their societies. Thus, the acts of crime remain a mystery until a girl becomes pregnant with a child, or suffer severe after effects such as trauma and negative health conditions. The illiteracy and ignorance of the villagers increase the damage on the lives of these girls and leave them uncared for long. As the legal systems and remedial mechanisms in the country is weak towards sexual and gender based violence, the perpetrators walk free, while the innocent grieve in pain and agony.

Gender based violence, domestic violence and sexual violence are common global phenomenon. Even though both men and women face these threats in their lives, data shows, approximately 70% of women face these types of violence at some point in their lifetime, which may vary based on the laws, practices, culture, religion and culture of different countries.

In Africa domestic violence soars high. But this is not the only threat that befalls the girls and women of Africa. Studies show that over 17 million women and girls who involve in collecting water in Africa, become victims of rape.

Women usually are the sole providers of food, water, and sanitation of the African household. Their reproductive roles oblige them to take on this primary responsibility, amidst the threats and risks they face in doing so. Not having access to safe water, and sanitation affects the women and girls in a large scale throughout Africa. While about 157 million in the Eastern and Southern regions of Africa do not have a clean and safe water distribution system, 247 million lack improved sanitation.

Thus, this situation is not an exception in Ethiopia. As over half of the population in Ethiopia lack access to clean and safe water, the burden of fetching drinking water from outdoor sources fall upon women and girls disproportionately. Traditional gender roles defined by the society play a crucial part in the lives of these women and girls of Ethiopia. And the situation is worse in the rural villages.

The innocent girls from the rural begin to dream of living in the big cities when they find it hard to survive in their own homes and societies.  Due to this, many young girls migrate to live in the cities of Ethiopia believing them to be rich, resourceful, happy and safe. They trust they could earn good money, and attend night school for their personal development. But these dreams and expectations never stay true for a large number of young women. Even though few get introduced to good-hearted employers, others fall into evil hands and become preys of the employers, facing various kinds of sexual harassment in the family they work for; severely beaten and threatened; and also used as sexual slaves.

“My employer and his son used me every evening” mentioned 17 year old Yeshi [not her real name], who had moved to the capital city from her village.

When young Yeshi became aware of what would happen to her future if she gets pregnant, she began to seek help from her close friend from the night school. “I would not have known the real father of the baby, as two men were having sex with me then. So I decided to ask my friend for advice” lamented Yeshi.

Yeshi’s friend, who was much older in age, advised young Yeshi to earn more money by using her body as a sex worker, than working as a domestic and letting her body be used for free. Yeshi’s innocence led her to the place where girls grouped in small rented houses to engage in the sex trade.

“It was not easy at first; in my previous workplace it was always the same two men, but here different men came to fulfill their desires; they were drunk; they were very old; they were also very cruel and violent at times. But I had no option left than to endure the pain in my body and mind. Nowhere is safe for a girl in this country; I would have been raped in my village too; we girls are often raped when walking to collect water. At least I have more money now. I am able to save some and send home to my poor”, mentioned Yeshi.

Many girls like Yeshi experience similar situations in Ethiopia. Girls who travel to the cities work as bartenders and get introduced to men or to those attached to the sex trade. In addition to this, girls are also sold to sex traffickers in a large scale.

In Ethiopia, most girls who go through sexual abuse and forced sex are under the age of 15. Yet, what is reported in actual is less than 1%, as many of the cases remain unreported and unattended. Interviews show that 17% of women experienced their first sexual encounter through force, and during their teenage years. And reasons for these high rates of sexual abuse on girls are their innocence, ignorance and poverty. The expected gender roles of women and girls, makes them vulnerable – both in their homes and out. The same culture, tradition and societal norms that dishonors a raped girl or woman, fails to notice the zero or limited participation of boys and men in household tasks and domestic duties.

Culture and traditions contribute to a patriarchal society that expects women to be the sole bearers of burden. Within the domestic environment as well as outside, the society determines and differentiates the duties and responsibilities between the male and female beings, with no consideration given to the physical and psychological risks that spin around them. And fetching water from distant lonely places is not an exception, limiting it to a ‘female’s’ task. The society judges that carrying water is a dishonor to ‘males’, and hence this society in order to preserve this conventional norm risk the honor of girls and women.

Women carry most of the world’s water. But this water is not for them alone. They carry this burden on their heads and shoulders, in dry deserts and amidst thorny bushes to fulfil the needs of their loved ones. 2.1 billion people in the world struggle for safe water [UNICEF and WHO], and collecting water for these numbers are carried out by mostly women and girls.

Water is a human right. Clean drinking water is essential to the realization of all human rights [UNGA Resolution 64/292 of 2010]. The UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 also calls on the importance of clean water for all people. Article 1.1 of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [General Comment No. 15] states: “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights”. The other human rights are right to be safe, right to be free from all kinds of violence, right to health, right to a free and dignified life. But the question today is if women and girls are able to exercise these basic rights in their lives.

Despite the fact that women and girls are exposed to extreme threats and risks that revolve around water, and struggle within the patriarchal systems, and corruption of the governments, it is also evident that their cases on sexual abuse and rape presented before the legal mechanisms become neglected and ignored, leaving them severely vulnerable. These systemic violations while repeatedly makes these girls victims, allows the perpetrators to be free.

The weak legal systems and approaches of Ethiopia, where alleged perpetrators could go free when the charge is related to a woman or girl, also exclude certain forms of sexual violence from its legal definition, especially when the reported incidents are from the rural villages.

It is a crucial fact, that the government of Ethiopia strengthens the legal system of the country, and probe into the crimes of rape and sexual violence, considering them to be strong acts of crime and violence, and a serious violation of human rights.

“We must unite. Violence against women cannot be tolerated, in any form, in any context, in any circumstance, by any political leader or by any government.” – Ban Ki-moon

Lily | Ethiopia