In the Winter 2015 issue of Ms. we introduced readers to an Ethiopian-made film titled Difret, produced in part by Angelina Jolie. The film tells the true story of an Ethiopian girl who, after being victimized in the 1990s by the local discriminatory practice of telefa, or marriage-by-abduction, killed the man who had abducted and raped her. The girl was charged with murder, but her lawyer, Meaza Ashenafi, not only helped clear her of the charges but took on telefa itself.
The girl at the center of the film remained anonymous until this year. Now that Difret has begun screening around the world, however, Aberash Bekele is speaking out about her experience. Below, read a Ms. Blog exclusive interview with Bekele and find out how you can help end the practice of telefa.
What made you decide to “come out” as the woman behind this story?
The film, Difret, has given me the chance to rethink my decisions and I have been inspired by seeing activists like Malala [Yousafzai] who are making a difference with their stories and I want to do the same. I am working with the producer of the film [Mehret Mandefro] and she is helping me become the advocate I want to be.
Why did you keep your identity hidden until recently?
After I was exiled to leave my village because of what happened, I had a hard life. I was not allowed to return and live with my family. So I thought it was better to remain hidden than be public.
How has the situation for girls in Ethiopia changed since your case was decided?
Many things changed after my case. There were no more abductions in my village for an almost 10-year period. The laws were also strengthened, abduction became punishable with a prison sentence of five years or more. The legal code also recognized gender-based violence as a crime for the first time in Ethiopian history. But now, abduction is on the rise again in my village and there is much work to do. I want to help do this work.
How can the U.S. government make a difference for girls in Ethiopia?
I want my petition to help encourage foreign governments to direct their foreign assistance investments to end child marriage in countries where it is high, like Ethiopia. There are many good local NGOs in countries like Ethiopia that are working hard to end child marriage. They need support to help do this work.
What do you hope to achieve with this campaign?
I think too often women like me are portrayed as victims and the truth is we are not, we have powerful voices that we can use for ourselves to achieve change. So, my main goal is to start using my voice and my story to help change things for other women and girls.
I want to bring awareness to the issue of child marriage and the ways in which it robs young women from leading a life of their own choosing. Because of the film Difret, I know I have an opportunity to reach millions of people with my story, even beyond Ethiopia, and I want to use this chance to help advocate for this issue.
I am working on these issues in Ethiopia and I want to help others working in different countries around the world to do the same. I want my story to be used to strengthen laws around the world. President Obama has already signed the International Violence Against Women Act and part of this law requires the State Department to implement a strategy to end child marriage. I am hoping that my petition can help insure that this actually happens.