This past Monday, the world celebrated International Women’s Day, which, according to the website, is “a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.” A loaded celebration, to be sure.
How did I celebrate?
Well, thanks to my beautiful friend, Sarah Jamieson, I was able to attend an event called Half the Sky Live, inspired by the book and movement by the same title and hosted by CARE. I was incredibly inspired by the stories of just pure courage, but also shocked and disturbed by the very personal stories of sex trafficking, forced prostitution, and gender-based violence. I’ll admit, these things weren’t within my limited span of awareness on this day of celebration.
The story that particularly moved me that evening, and that was featured in a vivid documentary by Marisa Tomei and Lisa Leone, was that of Woineshet Zebene Negash. Woineshet is an incredible girl (now a young woman) from Ethiopia, who at the age of 13 was abducted and raped.
As an article by Equality Now explains,
“In some regions of Ethiopia, abduction is an old cultural practice used to take a girl as a wife by force. Typically, the girl is abducted by a group of young men. She is then raped by the man who wants to marry her, who may be someone she knows or a total stranger. The elders from the man’s village then apologize to the family of the girl and ask them to agree to the marriage. The family often consents because a girl who has lost her virginity would be socially unacceptable for marriage to another man. Sometimes the abductor keeps the girl in a hiding place and rapes her until she becomes pregnant, at which time her family feels it has no option but to agree to the marriage.”
“Both abduction and rape are criminal offences under Ethiopian law, but until recently, Articles 558 and 599 of the 1957 Ethiopian Penal Code provided that in the event of subsequent marriage to his victim, the perpetrator is exempt from criminal responsibility for these crimes.”
To Woineshet and her family though, this was unacceptable. She brought her abductor and his accomplices to court, and they were charged to 10 and 8 years respectively to imprisonment. However, just four months later, their appeal was approved and they were released without parole.
Her father and her have since been educating rural communities and fighting to change the laws in Ethiopia; however, to my ignorance and disbelief, this is not a unique case.
Today, I finished the book, “I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced”. If that title didn’t make you gasp, the story certainly will.
Nujood Ali grew up in Yemen, where as discovered by a study by Husnia al-Kadri, the director of women’s affairs at the University of Sana’a, over half of the women in the country are married before the age of eighteen. Nujood herself was married off at age nine by her father to a man more than three times her age. She never agreed to the marriage and never saw or signed the contract, but she was married to a dowry of 150,000 rials (around $750) and a promise to “not touch [her] before the year after she has her first period.”
In her book, she tells the explicit story of the horrifying months of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse by her husband and in-laws, and let me remind that she was ONLY TEN YEARS OLD!! But in her incredulous bravery, she escapes to a courthouse and becomes the first child bride in Yemen to be granted a divorce. After Nujood’s day in court, two other young girls – Arwa, who was nine, and Rym, twelve – pursued their own battles to be granted a divorce, and won.
I have become so aware of the young girls around me at the cafe and on the bus, taking a guess at their age and quivering every time. Yes, it may be distant, but it is also still real and real today.
And so, with Woineshet and Nujood in mind, International Women’s Day became a much more meaningful day this year. Yes, it was still a celebration in the most gracious appreciation of where I am, of what I am able to do on a daily basis, and of the incredible women that have allowed me to be here. But this year, I have also developed a new appreciation which is not one to celebrate, but rather one to talk about: an appreciation that perhaps I am the one in the unique situation.
(Also, please note that these girl’s stories are much more complex and their lives much more beautiful than what I’ve been able to describe today. I highly recommend both of these books to get the full story!)