Hurt and abused Children in Ethiopia

 “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God”.[1]

Part One

No defence, no support, no voice:

Almost half the 82 million[2] population of Ethiopia are under 14 years of age, the children of a new time. Throughout the World the call for justice, freedom and unity is being made loud and clear. It is overwhelmingly the young who cry out, often in pain and anguish, in determination to build a fair and decent world. The 40 million plus children in Ethiopia are the hope and promise of this wonderful country, in their hands lies the possibilities of a new day and a just future.

 The African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) report, ‘Violence Against Children in Ethiopia, in Their Own Words’, states; “A large proportion of children, our beloved children, are victims of violence everyday around the world. This is especially true in Ethiopia, where approximately 99 percent of the children polled in this study (of 1750) said they had encountered violence in their home, school or community.“[3] This estimate if representative of the country at large is staggering and indicates the magnitude of the problem. The issue is of the utmost urgency and should be of primary importance to the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), who reassuringly state,  “The welfare of children is a priority concern for the Ethiopian Government.”[4]  On the face of it at least, this sounds like good news for the great numbers of suffering children in Ethiopia.

 Criminal neglect

Illegal exploitation, violence, intimidation and cruelty, the inhumane treatment many children in Ethiopia experience daily at the hands of parents, family members, and teachers, within a society that both adores and ignores the child, professes love whist committing abuse. An umbrella of ignorance and denial casts a dark and painful shadow over the lives of Ethiopia’s little ones, “knowledge of the nature and extent of the problem of violence against children remains limited” (ACPF). Abuse, justified often as cultural behaviour, denying the reality of the pain and suffering of many children.

The Ethiopian government, in the form of the  (EPRDF), led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, have signed and ratified The Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The UNCRC is “a universally agreed set of non-negotiable standards and obligations. These basic human rights set minimum entitlements and freedoms that should be respected by governments. They are founded on respect for the dignity and worth of each individual, regardless of race, colour, gender, language, religion, opinions, origins, wealth, birth status or ability and therefore apply to every human being everywhere.”[5]

International treatise signed and laws written into the Federal Criminal Code by the Ethiopian Government are clear and firm, to the letter. The law though remains unenforced and indolent, allowing the plague of abuse to continue, grow and intensify. ““Ethiopia is not implementing her obligations under the international conventions relating to the rights of children.” (ACPF)  By ratifying the UNCRC the Ethiopian authorities, entered into a binding legal agreement in accordance with international law. They agreed to safeguard the children of their country, to protect them from harm and to put an end to the widespread physical abuse, as well as, child prostitution, rape and incest. Violence and abuse within the home the school and the wider community. Violence and abuse throughout the beautiful and to many of its people, sacred land.

The children whose moral and most basic human rights are being trampled on, know well the crime and neglect of the government and those in whose care fate has placed them, over 60% of “children who were interviewed said that they considered violence against children as a human rights issue.” (ACPF). 

 Home sweet home

 Having worked with disadvantaged, vulnerable children in Addis Ababa we witnessed first hand many cases of child abuse, physical, emotional, and mental/psychological and quickly became aware of the scale of the problem, “children regularly face humiliating physical punishment and psychological abuse at home, in school and in the community-at-large,” where “children [in the study] acknowledged the prevalence of sexual violence” (ACPF) Abuse within the home, at the hands of parents, grandparents and extended family members, often goes unreported and unpunished. “The government does not take strict measures against child abusers. Even those that are doing terrible things like rape and abduction are treated leniently. Also parents go unpunished in most cases even when they do terrible things to their children.” Focus group participants aged 10 to 18 years old,

The ACPF study found that, “the primary settings for physical and psychological violence were at home and in school.” Violence towards children within the family is endemic in Ethiopia. “Physical and humiliating punishment is a violation of children’s fundamental human rights. The violence needs to end,”(ACPF) howeverthere is no [Federal] law [specifically] against corporal punishment at home.”(ACPF)  “Provisions in the Civil Code oppress the child and place it under dictatorial parental authority. The code, for example, empowers the guardian “to inflict light bodily punish
ment on the minor for the purpose of ensuring the latter’s education
” (Article 267/2)” (SSBB) The Federal penal code “is [here] in “direct conflict with Article 19.1 of the CRC.” (See below) This is immaterial from a legal standpoint as Ethiopia is compelled under the UNCRC to uphold the rights of the child, however in not making violence in the home an offence under Federal law, the EPRDF is endorsing abuse in homes throughout Ethiopia.

 The home, a place where children should feel safe and secure, loved and cared for, is all too often the crucible of violence where the child is the victim, the servant the violated, “I know a child who was brought here by her relatives for education in my neighbourhood. She is about 13-years-old. But she has never been sent to school. She works every day. One Saturday I was bored and wanted to play with the girl. I went to her house. I called her name but no answer came. Then I heard a whisper in one of the rooms. I opened the door and saw her in the bed with the father of the family.” Rape within the family and community is widespread, “The study found that fathers, stepfathers, and sometimes close relatives, such as uncles, sexually abused children” [6] it is a hidden subject, barely utter able, a vulgar violation, abhorrent and shameful.

Trust, that bedrock of relationship, shattered. 

Domestic violence is often the cause of extended hardship and exploitation. A son or daughter suffering repeated abuse at the hands of a parent or other family member, having nobody to turn to for support, and feeling hopeless and alone, turns often to the street. Escape even into the frightening and dangerous environment of street life is seen as a sanctuary from the violence at home. “When physical punishment becomes intolerable, a child may flee from home, a study on street children in four major Ethiopian towns found that family conflict is the second most common reason for children living on the street,” (ACPF) A girl on the street all to often means prostitution and for boys, criminality, alcohol/drugs and further violence become the cocktail of childhood, poured out at the hands of family and community, sanctioned by the State, who allows the abuse to continue.

In the ACPF study we find disturbing examples of abuse, as given by children themselves: “In our community, most parents beat their children”. 13-year-old boy. “My father used to beat me after tying my neck together with my leg.” 14-year-old boy, “I became a street boy because of the beatings at home.” 12-year-old boy. The following incident was something we came across “I know a man who burnt his stepdaughter with a hot iron.” 14-year-old boy. In the case brought to our attention it was a 12-year-old boy that was burnt by his Grandmother, for the heinous crime of being late home from school.

Whilst there is clearly a responsibility within the family to put an end to the barbaric treatment many children are subjected to, the burden of responsibility, moral and legal under international law falls ultimately to the Government. “State Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.” Article 19 UNCRC. It is criminal neglect by the ruling FPRDF, in breach of its Internationally binding agreements that allows the suffering of so many children to carry on. 

Part Two

Cultural calamity

Violence towards children is embedded into the social conditioning of Ethiopia, all too often mistakenly termed ‘culture’, and excused thereby, “In our culture there is a saying that if a female is not circumcised she will break things. So families circumcise their children.” 14-year-old girl.“ (ACPF) This is superstitious nonsense and needs to be seen as such. Within the Ethiopian criminal code many harmful traditional practices are dealt with and in some detail, crimes committed against Life, Person and Health through Harmful Traditional Practices.[7] This and other articles in the criminal code need to be consistently implemented and education programmes enlightening prejudices, freeing children and indeed parents from such damaging, ignorant practices need to be initiated throughout the country.

‘Culture’, that much misinterpreted, overused term of convenience, cited so often in the mistreatment of children, provides no justification for practices that are instrumental in causing deep hardship and suffering, to the most vulnerable in society. Cultural and traditional beliefs deeply rooted in society sanction violence as a way of disciplining children. In addition, there is no tradition or knowledge of alternative ways of disciplining children other than resorting to violent practices. Worse, is the fact that children remain powerless victims, their viewpoints and opinions generally ignored, with no formal or traditional recourse for redress or protection.” (ACPF)

Ethiopia has a rich and ancient culture; let it not be soiled by the inclusion of abuse, violence and the exploitation of its children.

Seen but not heard

There is little or no freedom of expression throughout Ethiopian civil society. Within the hierarchy of family and the community, including school, children are held firmly in their subservient place. Parents, grandparents and other ‘senior’ family members, in addition to older siblings, enjoy a position of authority over the children in their ‘care’, “In the majority of Ethiopian communities, children are generally viewed as parental property.”[8]

This inhibiting restricted state of control extends from the family into the community at large. Children are treated as servants, often little better than slaves in fact, “children are not being treated as human beings born and endowed with their own particular inter
ests and the capacity to make decisions for themselves.” (EPPAC)
The child’s human and moral rights are not observed and the children themselves are unaware they have any. They are conditioned, by pervading attitudes as demonstrated by parents, teachers and members of the community into believing they deserve to be mistreated, feel they have no recourse to law or communal support and no avenues of complaint.  

Excluding children from society, denying them a voice and forcing them to work. Restricting their participation to running household errands and undertaking whatever menial chores their seniors order, maintains methods of repression and abuse, which control children throughout Ethiopian society. “The low status accorded to children and lack of awareness was frequently mentioned by children and adults as the major cause for the continued practice of corporal and other forms of punishments against children.” (EPPAC)

Platforms of expression and channels of complaint providing children with ways of voicing their concerns and highlighting the many injustices they live under are essential elements in facilitating change. “Corporal punishment of children, particularly by parents, is either not reported or not properly prosecuted.” (EPPAC) Including children in the consultative stage of legislation as it relates to child offenses, in the home, in school and the community at large, would empower children and help to establish positive relationships with authority and the relevant government bodies. Consultation with children would strengthen research and provide them with a voice, a crucial factor in shifting the child’s current position of exclusion and powerlessness. “Children’s feelings and voices are [not] captured or even consulted in the process of legislation on issues concerning their welfare and rights.” (EPPAC)

Parental abuse lasting damage

Many of the children we worked with in Addis Ababa aged from 5 to 18 years old, recounted stories of being repeatedly and aggressively abused, physically, sexually and verbally. Whether street children, commercial sex workers (CSW)-often the victim of rape, or children from disadvantaged backgrounds in schools, they shared stories of violence at the hands of Mothers, Fathers, family members and teachers, social workers, older children and   stepparents. “Children who live with stepfathers or stepmothers suffer the most at home. Stepparents severely beat or psychologically rebuke their stepchildren.” (SSBB) Surprisingly perhaps it is Mothers who are most often violent to there children, “since mothers work most of the time in the home, they spend more time with their children than do fathers, and thus abuse the children more frequently than the fathers.” (SSBB)

Shame and embarrassment coloured the tone of the children’s harrowing accounts, emotional bruising more difficult perhaps to recognise than a broken limb, or scarred flesh. “Corporal punishment may leave behind temporary or permanent injuries on children. In extreme cases, it may even result in death. There are incidents where children become unconscious, bleed, break their backbone, lose a limb or fingers as a result of physical abuse. “(EPPAC)

There are various types of physical violence and verbal abuse commonly employed to punish and control children. “More than 60 percent of adults in the study admitted to tying up a child with rope or electrical wire.” Over 70% had been hit with a stick or some other weapon.  Hitting on the head, slapping, pinching, and whipping with a belt, kneeling or squatting down are all methods of cruelty employed and revealed in the ACPF study. In extreme cases, where the child is being taught an unforgettable lesson “Their hands are twisted and tied together behind their backs with rope. They are then ordered to kneel-down with objects stuffed into their mouths and forced to stay in that position for long periods, or are flogged many times on the back” (SSBB) This is torture, and at the hands of ‘loving’ parents, Grandparents and the like

All forms of abuse impact on the psyche of the child, affecting his/her psychological landscape colouring every aspect of the evolving life from childhood into adulthood. “As adults, children who experienced abuse or neglect have an increased likelihood of criminal behaviour, involvement in violent crime, abuse of alcohol and other drugs, and abusive behaviour.”[9] The impact on the child of repeated violence and abuse is difficult to assess and quantify and “there is little understanding, if any, of how harmful such violence can be to a child’s development, growth and survival.” (ACPF) There are however clear indicators that demonstrate the impact of physical and emotional abuse on a child’s ability to learn, to establish and maintain healthy lasting social relationships and to interact in a harmless positive manner within their community. To feel whole, healthy and of value. “I got very scared and felt useless when my mother threatened me that she would rather kill me and go to jail.” 13-year-old.  “Our drunkard uncle with whom we live beats my little brother, who is three years old. As a result, he is now very scared of people. I cry for him and I feel terrible about how we live,” 13-year-old (ACPF). All men and women of goodwill will raise their hands to the heavens and shed a tear at this infant’s pain.

Fear, loss of self-confidence, low self-esteem and guilt, colour the lives of many abused children, “The impact of child abuse and neglect is far greater than its immediate, visible effects. These experiences can shape child development and have consequences that last for years, even lifetimes.” Reoccurring cycles of abuse by parents, where the child is repeatedly exposed or witness to physical violence, threats and verbal intimidation, often cause the children themselves to become violent, “they hit us because they passed through the same experiences during their childhood, and they think that corporal punishment is the best way of disciplining children.” Focus group participants aged 10-18-years-old (ACPF)

Conditioned into violence, children repeat the destructive pattern of behaviour they have been the victims of. “Intergenerational cycle/s of violence  – violence that is passed from father to son or daughter, parent to child, or sibling to sibling. Children exposed to domestic violence are likely to develop behavioural problems, such as regressing, exhibiting out of control behaviour, and imitating behaviour. Children may think that violence is an acceptable behaviour (within) intimate relationships and become either the abused or the abuser.”[10] “The physical, psychological, and behavioural consequences of child abuse and neglect impact not just the child and family, but the community as a whole.”[11] Violence breed’s violence, abuse leads to more abuse, individually and collectively “Studies indicate that children who have experienced physical violence in the early years often become violent as adults.” (EPPAC)

Parents need to be made aware of the effects of repeated verbal and physical abuse and that violence towards the child is a criminal offense. Political will and moral responsibility In accordance with the Governments legal obligations must be expressed in the enforcement of the law by the appropriate authourities. Education, deterrents and platforms of expression plus clear channels of recourse for children, will together help change attitudes, curb destructive behavior and empower the young. 

Part three

School daze

There are few corners of childhood in Ethiopia that are safe it seems. “In schools, some   take advantage of their positions and force students to engage in sex with them in return for better grades and other favors. Such instances take place in primary and secondary schools.” [12] Attending school even becomes a torture then, everyday filled with uncertainty and the fear of physical violence, verbal insults or sexual intimidation. “We feel like we are totally at the mercy of our teachers as they beat us for good or bad reasons.” 12-year-old girl.” (ACPF)More than 90% of students were punished by their teachers, although 70% of teachers were aware of the negative effects of corporal punishment.” (EPPAC) but continue nevertheless, one may rightly then question the degree of their ‘awareness’

In a country where literacy rests at 48% school attendance is crucial. Children trapped and violated in school as in home, will naturally seek escape, “physical and humiliating punishment in schools is usually implicated with school drop-out.” (EPPAC). Education is a road out of poverty and victimization, to freedom and justice. Schools should be exciting centers of self discovery, where the innate potential of all may be sensed, fostered and realized, not hostile environments of fear, repression and control, where prejudices are reinforced and children hurt and humiliated. 

Schools are expected to provide safe and protective environment{s} for students. In this respect, the FDRE Constitution of 1995 and the Federal Ministry of Education guidelines discourage the use of corporal punishment in schools.” (VASC) However sexual and physical attacks persist: “male teachers used their position of authority to influence female students into having sexual affairs with them. Commonly, male students and neighbourhood adolescent boys also perpetrated sexual violence against female students.” (SSBB)

Home, school, community, microcosms of the society at large, sharing cause and effect, as one section of society impacts and colours the other. Family sits at the very heart of the community. The values promoted and expressed, the nature of relationships within the home and the general attitudes adopted, condition the community at large. Teachers who move into the school from a home where children are violated, physically beaten and sexually mistreated, will inevitably express these attitudes to their students. The same applies to adolescent boys loitering outside schools intimidating and sexually harassing young girls as the walk to and from school.

 Even though corporal punishment in schools is illegal, “Children stated that physical and psychological punishment is very prevalent in schools and that they experience most forms of punishment there. Those who inflict such violence are usually schoolteachers, guards, class monitors and older boys.” “I lost my pencil. When the school director learnt that I was not writing, he beat me with a plastic hose. My nose was bleeding and I went to the clinic.” Sixth grade student (ACPF). Children should be made aware of their Human Rights, and informed that teachers are breaking the law when they are physically and verbally violent towards them. The school and then the criminal prosecution service should discipline those teachers, who revert to verbal and physical abuse, firstly, depending on the severity of the offence.

Encouragingly there are various positive signs of change highlighted in the STCD report. “There are significant programme interventions being carried out by governmental and non- governmental organisations (NGOs) to address the problem of physical and humiliating punishment of children. Most of the activities towards ending corporal punishment target schools.” (EPPAC) “With a view to promoting child participation and to enabling children to protect their own rights, some NGOs are engaged in establishing and supporting various kinds of clubs in schools.” (EPPAC) 

This is all to be welcomed and should be seen as steps in the right direction. At the heart of any change in schools though must be the children and the teaching staff. Training programmes need to be delivered to change teaching methods and broaden teachers understanding of the impact, immediate and long term, of abuse and violence. In (VAGS) various recommendations are made, key amongst these are,  “Train all teachers in non-violent methods of disciplining students.” Components, which make teachers and children aware of the Human Rights of the Child, need to be developed, and “Establish at a school level a mechanism for reporting violence and abuse and providing appropriate counseling and support for victims of violence and abuse.”

Let us add to this the recurring theme of inclusion. Systems of complaint and structures that encourage participation by children in the running of schools, e.g. class representatives, regular meetings with teachers and administrators, encouraging input into decisions affecting the life of the school. These and other methods based on participation, will breach divisions and contribute to creating vibrant inclusive education environments, based on respect for all, tolerance and understanding.

Community complicity

Society or community is not an abstract entity existing separately from the individuals in society. The individual is the society. We find the same archaic destructive attitudes to child-care and parenting seen in families being demonstrated within the community, distorting the behavior of adults and older children alike. Gender imbalances animating negative sociological stereotypes, of male superiority and female subservience underlie community sexual violence and intimidation experienced by many young girls. Children are treated as objects within the family and the community, all too often men’s attitudes, old and young towards girls in particular, reflect this, “I remember a girl who was being harassed by a man who said he wanted to marry her. She refused. One day he forcefully took her to his home and raped her. “ (ACPF))

The types of physical violence experienced within the community, mirror those the child is confronted with at home. Slapping at 54% is the most common, with being hit on the head coming in a close second. More subtle perhaps is the ridicule and fear engendering psychological abuse, almost 50% suffering such attacks. In addition to these physical atrocities, child abduction, seduction, sexual harassment and rape all occur within the child’s community. 

The law is clear, Ethiopia has signed all manner of international relevant treatise and drafted into the Federal code all agreements, so what is the approach of the police within the community, the first point of contact with the judicial system? “I was beaten by the police for begging.” 13-year-old street boy “I was beaten by the police for sleeping on the sidewalks.” 14-year-old street boy (ACPF) Children, the innocent victims in the home, and school, are at even greater risk within the community. Those whose duty it is to protect and nurture the child, the very source of so much suffering and fear. “Children [in the survey] stated that all types of sexual violence including rape, abduction, early marriage, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and sexual harassment are prevalent in their communities. Most of these humiliating and damaging acts are committed by male vagrants, older boys, teachers, traditional doctors and parents.” (ACPF)

It truly beggars belief, in a country where Christ’s teachings of love and forgiveness as embodied in Orthodox Christianity dominate so many lives, and devout dedication to the church is on a level bordering the fanatical, that the most innocent and vulnerable are used, abused and violated in their homes, their schools and the streets in which they live and play.

Part Four

Stolen childhoods

Child prostitution & trafficking in Ethiopia

 Prostitution, perhaps the most distressing form of child abuse in an epidemic throughout Ethiopia. The innocence of a childhood shattered, causing a deep feeling of shame, poisoning the sense of self and excluding the child from education, friends and the broader society. A society, which stands idly by whilst children suffer, speaking not in the face of extreme exploitation, denying the truth of extensive child exploitation and acts not, is a society in collusion.  

In the capital prostitution abounds, “It is difficult to give an exact figure for the prevalence of child prostitution in Addis Ababa but observation reveals that the numbers are increasing at an alarming rate in the city”[13] The joint Save the Children Denmark and Addis Ababa City administration (SCD) study states “Interviewing children revealed that over 50% started engaging in prostitution below 16 years of age. The majority work more than six hours per day”

There are many grades or levels of prostitution, “Some children engage in commercial sex in nightclubs, bars and brothels, while others simply stand on street corners waiting for men to pick them up” (CPAA) The SCD study “identified types of child prostitution: working on the streets; working in small bars; working in local arki or alcohol houses; working in rented houses/beds and; working in rent places for chat/drugs use. Each location exposes the children to different risks and hazards.”

“The major problems that have been faced by children engaged in prostitution include: rape, beating, hunger, etc. Based on the responses of children engaged in prostitution, about 45% of them have been raped before they engaged in the activity”. (CPAA) The dangers associated with child prostitution affect the girls physical and mental/emotional health. Violent physical abuse, being hit and raped is common, Birtuken a 17 year old child sex worker (CSW), “prostitution is disastrous to the physical and social wellbeing of a person.” (CPAA) The impact on the long-term mental health of a child working in prostitution, can often cause chronic psychological problems, “the emotional health consequences of prostitution include severe trauma, stress, depression, anxiety, self-medication through alcohol and drug abuse; and eating disorders.[14]

The risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) and HIV/Aids is great, so too the chances of unwanted pregnancies, as men, immersed in selfishness and ignorance, refuse to wear condoms. Their arrogance and macho bravado is a major cause in the spread of HIV/Aids in Ethiopia USAID[1
suggests, “1.3million people are now living with the virus in the country”. It is estimated that “70 per cent of female infertility is caused by sexually transmitted diseases that can be traced back to their husbands or partners.”[16] “Women in prostitution have been blamed for this epidemic of STDs when, in reality, studies confirm that it is men who buy sex in the process of migration who carry the disease from one prostituted woman to another and ultimately back to their wives and girlfriends.” (EoP)

There are various causes for the growth in child prostitution in urban and rural areas as well as Addis Ababa, arranged marriages, illegal under Federal Law is cited as a key factor, “Research carried out in 2005 established that most victims of commercial sexual exploitation found in the streets of Addis Ababa had been married when they were below 15 years of age” (SAACSEC) In highlighting the factors that drive children away from their homes and into commercial sex work, the CPAA study found that Most of the child prostitutes came from regions to look for a job, due to conflicts at home, early marriage and divorce. Poverty, death of one or both parents, child trafficking, high repetition rates and drop out from school and lack of awareness about the consequence of being engaged in prostitution are key factors that push young girls to be involved in commercial sex work”. (CPAA) In addition to arranged marriage, which is a significant cause, the study found that “the major reasons identified by the children themselves for engaging in commercial sex work are: poverty (34%), dispute in family (35%), and death of mother and/or father. 40% joined prostitution either to support themselves or their parents. Quite a large number of girls (35%) have joined prostitution due to violence within the home. Thus violence within the family is the main cause for children fleeing from home.”

The causes listed are complex and interrelated. At the epicenter of these diverse reasons though sits the family. Conflict at home is for many girls (and boys) the force driving them away from family and onto the streets of Addis Ababa, or one of the provincial towns and cities. Division and conflict grow from many seeds, repeated physical abuse at the hands of a parent or stepparent, rape at the hands of a Father, stepfather or extended family member, physical and verbal abuse, all are factors that force girls to leave the home and seek release from what has become a prison like existence of servitude, intimidation and fear. “When physical and psychological punishment becomes intolerable, it may lead to the child running away from home. Girls tend to become prostitutes when they run away from home.” (VACE2)

Another burgeoning group from which many children fall into the net of prostitution is that resulting from HIV-orphans who have lost their parents to the virus. “Ethiopia has one of the largest populations of orphans in the world: 13 per cent of Ethiopian children have lost one or both parents…the number of children orphaned solely by HIV/AIDS has reached over 1.2 million. These children find themselves at a very high risk of entering commercial sex to survive, yet there is very limited support available for them either from government  [emphasis mine}.”(AACSE)

 Coherent or dysfunctional, the social fabric is a tapestry of interrelated, interconnected strands. Neglect by the Ethiopian Government in areas diverse, and fundamental is the glue that is binding together a polluted stream of suffering and pain.

Bussed in Married off

In 2006/7 I worked with the Forum for Street Children Ethiopia (FSCE), running education projects for the children in their care. Girls living and working on the streets, mainly the hectic cobbled broken pathways around the Mercato Bus station. “This extremely poor neighborhood in the city has become ‘the epicentre of the capital’s illegal [emphasis mine] industry of child prostitution’[17]

The children at FSCE ranged in age, although many did not even know their date of birth; most the children do not have documentation  “the problem is further aggravated by a widespread lack of birth registration” (CPAA). Some were as young as 11 years old, over 50% started engaging in prostitution below 16 years of age” the study states.  “In almost every case the girls come to the city from the countryside, their families cast many out, others sent to Addis to work”. Arriving at the city’s main bus-station, shrouded in naivety and fear, with little or no education, the girls make easy pickings for the men that greet them, with a warm smile, and a cunning mind only to mistreat, use and exploit them. With nowhere else to go, and no alternatives, the girls find themselves working the street and the journey into the painful, destructive prison of prostitution has begun.

 Many, according to Save the Children Denmark (STCD), come from the Amhara region, the second most populated region, with a population of over 20 million. These children arrive in the capital knowing nobody, with (probably) no money and no contacts.”Enforced child marriages, abuse, and the prospects of ending their days in the grip of poverty are factors pushing Ethiopian girls as young as nine years of age’” (VACE), to risk their childhood and their lives in the city. According to (CPAA) “There are many factors pushing the girls away from the region, (Amhara) including poverty, peer pressure and abuse. But child marriage is one of the most common explanations we hear when interviewing the girls,” Arranged marriages are widespread in the (Amhara) region in the north of Ethiopia, where young girls, children are forced to marry adult men, all too often this ‘union’ results in rape, abuse and violence, from which the innocent child is forced to flee, only into the clutches of exploitation, violence and abuse. And do they recover, is there healing and release, is a childhood stolen, a childhood lost, let us pray it is not so.

Marriages entered into unwillingly by extremely young girls, some as young as seven years old usually in exchange for reparations of some kind, money, cattle, land, lead all too often to abuse and violence, “traditional practices like female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage, are causes for the increased violence against children.” 14-year-old boy [18]in Wolmera Woreda, the practice of FGM
is nearly universal since girls must be circumcised before marriage.” (VACE2)
 Once committed to a marriage, by parents who often regard the child as no more than an object to be traded, the girl is frequently raped and mistreated and treated as a servant. “Abduction, rape and early marriage may ultimately lead many girls to prostitution. Early marriage and abduction seldom produce successful marriages. In fact, such relationships are short-lived. As a result, most of these young girls run far away from their husbands in an attempt to start a new and happier life elsewhere. Unfortunately, many of them end up as prostitutes.’ (VACE2)

Early marriage is illegal (except under particular circumstances), weak law enforcement [Emphasis mine] allows this practice to be widely followed throughout Ethiopia; the phenomenon is reported in almost every region of the country. Nationwide, 19 per cent of girls were married by the age of 15 and about half were married by the age of 19; in Amhara region, 50 per cent of girls were married by the age of 15. When the marriage finally collapses, the girls usually migrate to urban areas since breaking a marriage arranged by their relatives is considered a shameful act and they are no longer welcome within their families and communities. Once in larger towns they end up living in the streets given their lack of skills to find employment. Such dire circumstances lead many girls to be exploited in commercial sex.”  (CPAA) 

To break free of a forced marriage entered into against the child’s will, and be punished by banishment from the family home, is a form of social injustice based on traditions, which have long failed to serve the children, the family or the community at large. It is time long since past that these practice’s where changed. Education, cultivating tolerance and understanding of the Human Rights of the Child are keys to undoing such outdated destructive sociological patterns, together with the enforcement of the law to deter parents and prospective ‘husbands’.

No options, no hope

No child enters into prostitution when they have a choice, “prostitution is seen as a social ill that is unaccepted, prohibited and fought in most parts of our continent. Prostitution is not only a question of morality but a human problem, a problem of human exploitation, a problem of societal failure in providing equal opportunities.” (CPAA)  “At the end (of the interview) Belaynesh said that no girl/woman would like to be a prostitute but the problems force them to be in such a situation.” The circumstances that lead a young girl away from the games and innocence of childhood and what should be, the love and gentle kindness of her family, into the shadows of prostitution, may vary and circumstances differ, suffering though is common to all those forced into such a lifestyle, the impact long lasting and severe, the consequences dire, destroying many lives.

The children at FSCE in Mercato told us their stories, often with shame, through tears and embarrassment, always with pain. A thread connected them all, yes poverty, was a major issue, so too poor education however, the stream that united the group of wonderful 11 to 18 year olds, was a breakdown in human relationships, of one kind or another. Once outside the family, and society, young girls desperate to survive have little choice but to work as CSW. For those recruiting and selling girls It is a business, for the children on the streets it a torture. “Almost all respondents do not like prostitution (99%). Almost all the girls are involved in prostitution not because they like what they are doing but due to other factors, to support themselves or their families.” (CPAA) “Child prostitution [is] a big business involving a whole series of actors from abductors at bus stations, to blue taxis and bar/hotel owners who tend to see children as the spices of their trade. The business actors, oblivious to pervasive taboos, have long abandoned recruiting adult prostitutes.” (CPAA) 

Trafficking lives

Child prostitution and trafficking of children are inextricably linked. They are of course both illegal. All international conventions, from The Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to International Labor Organisation  (IL0), as one would expect, outlaw them. So too do Ethiopia’s Federal laws, “The 1993 Labor Proclamation forbids employment of young persons under the age of 14 years. Employment in hazardous work is also forbidden for those under 18. The Penal Code provides means for prosecuting persons sexually or physically abusing children and persons engaging in child trafficking including juveniles into prostitution. Federal Proclamation no.42/93 protects children less than 14 years not to engage in any kind of formal employment.” (CPAA) And yet both child prostitution and the trafficking of minors goes on, and on and on. “The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that girls are trafficked both within the country and abroad to countries in the Middle East and to South Africa.”[19]  

Children are brought from rural areas of Ethiopia to the capital city by brokers,  “ttraffickers, who feed on parent’s low awareness with false promises of work and education for their offspring.” The numbers are staggering, the money tiny, the damage unimaginable “up to 20,000 children, some 10 years old, are sold each year [for around $1.20 to $2.40] by their parents and trafficked by unscrupulous brokers to work in cities across Ethiopia.”[20] And who would do such a thing. Who would ‘sell’ an innocent child; condemn a child to slavery and brutal exploitation, pain and acute distress? “These traffickers are ‘typically local brokers, relatives, family members or friends of the victims. Many returnees are also involved in trafficking by working in collaboration with tour operators and travel agencies”[21] “The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism has not been signed by any travel and tourism company in Ethiopia.” (CPAA) The Ethiopian Government acting in the interest of the children upon their homeland, and their responsibilities under international law, should rightly and immediately make all tour operators sign the afore mentioned treaty, or face closure, and criminal prosecution.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) stated that Ethiopian children are being sold for as little as US$ 1.20 to work as domestic servants or to be exploited in p
rostitution.” The Middle East is the major international destination of choice for traffickers, “
Many Ethiopian women working in domestic service in the Middle East face severe abuses indicative of forced labor, including physical and sexual assault, denial of salary, sleep deprivation, and confinement. Many are driven to despair and mental illness, with some committing suicide. Ethiopian women are also exploited in the sex trade after migrating for labour purposes – particularly in brothels, mining camps, and near oil fields in Sudan – or after escaping abusive employers in the Middle East.”[22] At least 10,000 have been sent to the Gulf States to work as prostitutes.”(CTE) Let us not even begin to look at the complicity of such states in the destruction of the lives of these children and women, the ‘little ones’ that dance upon the waters of life, seeking only a gentle heart to trust, finding the dark days of Rome, and in despair we cry “Men’s wretchedness in soothe I so deplore,”[23]

Prime Minister Meles loves to ‘talk the talk’ to his western allies, the US, Britain, the European Union and the like, whilst turning a blind eye, a deaf ear to the cries of the child being beaten, the young girl being raped and traded for sex and the teenager separated from her family, her friends and her childhood, sold into servitude and abuse within Ethiopia and across the Red Sea in the oil rich ‘Gulf States’.


Part Five

Listen to me my Country

Where do we look for those responsible for the perpetuation of the underlying cause and continuing practice of child prostitution in Ethiopia?  To whom may the children turn and ask why do you allow children as young as 11 years old to be violated, in the most brutal manner. Why do you sit, watching our pain, and acting not?  “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”[24]Ethiopian law regarding child prostitution is clear and on the whole ahead of its time. But, with the law not being enforced, [emphasis mine] child prostitution has been an open secret shunned by the law, culture and religion but not exposed and stopped by the same”. (CPAA)

State responsibility is fundamentally the upholding of the law/s to which the State has agreed to, reflecting the underlying moral duty of the ‘elected’ representatives. “The basic principle of “state responsibility” in international law provides that any state who violates its international obligations must be held accountable for its acts. More concretely, the notion of state responsibility means that states, which do not respect their international duties, are responsible to immediately stop their illegal actions, and make reparations to the injured. [Emphasis mine] This is a fundamental principle, which forms part of international customary law, and [emphasis mine] is binding upon all states.”[25]

The ‘injured’ are many, they are the excluded children standing at the street corner in the cold touting for business, they are the helpless ones that live on the fringe of a society that denies their very existence, they are the ignored, the unheard and unloved, “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.”[26] Like Amelework, “The 16 year old child who migrated from Gonder, a city some 850 kilometers from Addis Ababa. She has not been to school and cannot read and write. She married when she was 12 years old and divorced the same year. She left her home and came to Addis Ababa in 1999, started looking for a job; she had no other means than being a commercial sex worker. She explained the problems she faced after she became a commercial sex worker, as follows: adults physically abused her. Some of her clients took back by force the money they paid for sexual service. [She} Suffers from various health problems. Exposure to excessive heat during the day and cold during the night when waiting for some potential client to pick her.”  Or, Birtukan, a 17 year- old girl from Selale in North Shewa, about 100km from Addis, who has “been forced into sex without condom many times, has been raped by street boys. Experiences various health problems such as cold, intestinal ailments, etc.”. (CPAA)

Two painful examples of the ‘injured’, alone and frightened in a frightening World, without a voice, without a choice, and without hope.

Protect the children

The Ethiopian Government is legally and morally responsible to uphold “its international obligations”; these are many and varied, but clear and specific. Having signed and ratified all manner of international conventions and treatise, the UNCRC being of primary importance. They have a duty to put in place effective enforcement mechanisms to safeguard the children in their care. In not doing so, they are in violation of International Law and of their solemn duty to the children of Ethiopia. “A state violates international law when it commits an “internationally wrongful act”, which breaches an international obligation that the state was bound by at the time when the act took place. A state is bound to act according to international treaties it signed.” (DIAK)  Children, some as young as 11 years old, working as Commercial Sex workers (CSW) is by any standards an “internationally wrongful act”.

In a further example of the government’s neglect and hypocrisy, we find a crucial piece of information in the ECPAT report. “Ethiopia acceded to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) 43 in 1991 but has not signed or ratified its Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography”. It begs the question why such a protocol should be optional. Is the wellbeing of the child at risk of being ‘sold’ into prostitution and/or pornography, their safety and sanctity optional?

A government that neglect’s to maintain the safety of the children of their country is in violation of their most basic and sacred moral duty and International Law. Through this omission to decency the Government colludes with those ‘men of immorality’ at the Me
rcato bus station in Addis, who see the child simply as an object to be sold and used as they would cattle for the slaughter, and encourages the illegal prostitution of children and their use in criminal pornography to continue.
While the crisis is ugly and lethal, just as sad is that it continues to mushroom unabated.” (CPAA)

A web of deceit and contradictions surround the Meles Government that asserts, “The supreme law of the land, which is the Federal Constitution, provides a sound framework for the protection and promotion of the rights of children”[27] The national or Federal laws, “have gone through some revision recently, with the principal objective of making them consonant with progressive standards”. Half hearted, the Federal laws are found wanting, in letter and substance, “Ethiopian law outlines a variety of offenses involving sexual acts with children, but falls short of international standards [emphasis mine] for protecting children from prostitution” The Criminal Code fails to prohibit the act of having sex with a child for remuneration.” (CPAA)

This is scandalous. Having signed and ratified the UNCRC however, they are bound by its requirements: Article 32 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that: “State parties recognize the rights of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.” And in order to add fire to an already blazing inferno of complicity, let us cite the International Labor Organisation (ILO)  “Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention (No182) has also been ratified by Ethiopia. The Convention defines the worst forms of child labor, which includes prostitution.” and there are many other examples of international conformity.

The EPRDF, as one would expect signs all the right agreements, courts all the right friends and says all the ‘right’ things and appears more concerned to be seen as a friend of  ‘The New Rulers of the World’[28], than a Brother of the child in need. In addition to ratifying the UNCRC they have signed up to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child ACRWC (2002) and another UN body, the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, as well as the Stockholm Declaration and Agenda for Action (1996 & 2001) and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and the Welfare of the Child, however ““Ethiopia is not implementing her obligations under the international conventions relating to the rights of children.” 16-year-old student (ACPF)

Internationally binding Laws are dutifully incorporated into Federal Law, what one would expect and in conformity with the image of acceptability and decency. The many agreements and signatures are but a shadow of dishonesty and apathy upon the darkness and shame that haunts the Government of Ethiopia and destroys the lives of so many of its children. “The Federal Constitution domesticates all international human right instruments,” All well and good, however, whether international or federal, law that sits quietly rotting upon a page of conformity and is not implemented is of little comfort to those like the defenseless child in this atrocious account, “In our neighborhood, a 22-year-old man raped an eight-year-old girl. He was released on bail without being punished for what he did. I am very much disappointed.” Recounts a neighbourhood friend. (ACPF)  We should all be “very much disappointed’, indeed shocked and horrified, at this vile abuse and the complacency and dishonesty of the ruling FPRDF party, which signs treatise, claims to care for the children yet acts not to protect them. “The present laws, to a large extent, address the problem of physical and humiliating punishment. However, despite the prevalence of the problem – which is also acknowledged by law enforcement bodies and the judiciary –– very few alleged perpetrators are being brought before justice.” (EPPAC) Enforcement, enforcement, enforcement is what this eight year old daughter needs, not simply the gloss of a catalogue of legal articles stocked neatly upon the shelf of indifference.

The idealization of change is far from its material manifestation, urgent and sustained action is needed, not simply words, ‘nothing happens by itself, man must act and implements his will”[29] Your words alone Prime Minister Meles mean nothing. Nothing to the 14-year-old “housemaid, raped by the employer’s son. She screamed. When we arrived to her rescue, she was covered with blood,” nothing to the 12 tear old boy, who “became a street boy because of the beatings at home Nothing Sir to the 12-year-old boy who says, “My mother forced me to inhale the smoke of burning pepper.”(ACPF) 

In an imitation of intent to combat child prostitution the EPRDF has formulated a ‘plan’, grandly called ‘Ethiopia’s National Action Plan on Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children (2006-2010)’. However as one would imagine where the rights of the Child are not recognized fully, treatise partially adopted and implementation completely lacking, “budget limitations have hindered the development of certain initiatives.” (ERQVAC)  The National Plan is in principle a positive step let it look closely at the causes of child abuse, trafficking and prostitution. And with the involvement of local and international groups, and crucially children, parents and community members, instigate education programmes, systems to implement the existing laws and structures of enforcement. In addition to making known International and National Laws in relation to child abuse offenses.

A nationwide strategic delivery of the “international agreements ratified by Ethiopia” is needed, along with education counseling and support programs to help families, communities and most importantly the children, those abused overcome the trauma that is destroying the lives of Ethiopia’s little ones, too many to count. The child frightened, without a voice, isolated and powerless, make easy pickings for a Government that continues in denial of the truth of their neglect and corruption. Sitting behind walled artifices of control and conceit sits a duplicitous regime, that care
s little for the men and women of Ethiopia, their wellbeing and Human Rights and even less it seems for their children.

February 2012


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