Filmmaker Challenges Bridal Abduction in Ethiopia

By Jaimee A. Swift

July 6, 2016

Imagine you are a 14-year old girl living in the countryside of Ethiopia, playing with friends after school. Walking home with an extra stride of confidence because your teacher lauds your academic performance, you are excited to tell your parents about your day. However, your joy quickly turns into fear, as a barrage of men with guns on horseback abduct you. Taken to an unknown location, you are beaten and raped by a man, who now claims to be your husband.


Fighting for your life, you manage to escape from your captors, and take one of their guns. While fleeing, your “husband” follows and chases you. With nowhere to go, you threaten to shoot if he does not retreat. He tries to attack you again. You shoot and kill him. Immediately, you are arrested and eventually, face a death sentence for defending yourself against your attacker.


Unfortunately, this story is not a mere figment of the imagination. The 2014 film “Difret” details the inspirational and true account of Aberash Bekele, who in 1997, stood trial for killing the man who abducted and raped her. Executively produced by actress Angelina Jolie-Pitt, the award-winning drama highlights the fortuitous spirit of Bekele and her female attorney, who valiantly defended her in a landmark legal case for gender equity in Ethiopia.


Difret – which means both “courage” and “the act of being violated” in Amharic – spotlights telefa, an Ethiopian tradition of abducting girls for marriage. Bekele, who is named Hirut in the film, was a survivor of the practice, and one of countless women and girls in Ethiopia who unfortunately had to endure a similar experience. A clash between cultural traditions and equal rights, “Difret”  also brings to the forefront the pervasiveness of early and forced child marriage. Though the legal age of marriage in Ethiopia is 18, two in every five girls are married before their 18th birthday, and one in five girls marries before the age of 15, according to Girls Not Brides. With one of the highest rates of early and forced child marriage in the world, prevalence rates vary within the country, and based on 2014 UNICEF report, the rate of child marriage is three times higher in the northern region of Amhara (75 percent), than in the capital of Addis Ababa (26 percent).


Perpetuated by poverty, a lack of access to education, and an absence of economic opportunities, girls in Ethiopia who are married before the age of 15, are more likely to be illiterate and less likely to be enrolled in school.


Dr. Mehret Mandefro, producer of “Difret”, has dedicated her life to end violence against women and girls in her native Ethiopia and beyond. An interdisciplinary scholar and filmmaker, Mandefro is a medical anthropologist and public health physician who has worked extensively with HIV infected and affected communities in Africa and the United States. As the founder of Truth Aid, Mandefro uses the power of film and media to ensure stories like Bekele’s do not fall into obscurity.


In an interview with Safe magazine, Mandefro spoke about what compelled her to produce a film about telefa and what individuals can do around the world to end violence against women and girls.

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Dr. Mehret Mandefro, producer of the award-winning film, “Difret” Photo courtesy of Dr. Mehret Mandefro

SAFE: You are an interdisciplinary scholar, producer, medical anthropologist, a White House Fellow — your experiences are endless. As a public health physician, why is it important to address violence against women and girls, as not only an egregious human rights violation, but also a serious health epidemic?


MEHRET MANDEFRO: Violence is a serious health epidemic. If you look at the statistics, it is quite shocking to see how health and violence intersect and also how social determinants serve as catalysts to health issues. These statistics affect women and girls across the board, irrespective of race, class or location. There is a profound study called the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE), which is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect. The study looks at adverse childhood events, such as sexual, emotional, psychological and physical violence. They follow children who experienced violence into their adulthoods, and found increased rates of sexually transmitted infections, depression, and suicidality.

This goes to show that violence has a multi-systemic impact, and can affect individuals’ logic function, and immune systems. Moreover, there are very real mental, emotional, physical and medical consequences that violence and trauma can bring about.


As a doctor – both abroad and in the United States – I believe that many of our health factors boil down to social determinants. When you look at studies, non-social factors are a really small aspect of health and related to things that are not necessarily medical. In many ways, health is a non-medical issue, and it really is about the culture, the environment and other social factors in which people grow up in.

SAFE: What compelled you to tell the story of Aberash Bekele, which the film’s protagonist, Hirut, is based on? Why was it so important to immortalize her courageous fight for gender equality and justice through film?


MM: There are so many stories that are told, especially about Africa, that do not necessarily have women at the center of their stories. When I found out about this story, I was so blown away by Bekele’s account, and that no one really had ever heard her story before. More importantly, Bekele grew up in a community where everyone deemed that it was “okay” to be abducted. However, she had the courage to say, “no, enough is enough.” That was a really an important sentiment for me to tell. Also, these moments of cultural change can happen within the countries themselves, and there are young people who challenge the traditions that were passed down to them. I think about the civil rights movement also in this context, and how young people rose up, and said “no” as well.


I thought it was really important to showcase how change happens within a culture because oftentimes when you look at these harmful traditional practices, it seems as if they are immutable. “Difret” was a real window of opportunity to see how change can happen, organically, from within.

SAFE: Can you tell us more about the origins of telefa, or the Ethiopian tradition of abducting girls for marriage? Does the tradition still occur in Ethiopia today?


MM: Honestly, I have no idea how it came about, but what I do know is that it is not a singular-based religious practice. People across various religions practice the tradition within Ethiopia. In certain parts of the country, as much as 15 to 20 percent of girls are still being abducted. It is all too alive and well, even in the present.

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Photo: Actress Tizita Hagere, who plays Hirut in the film ‘Difret’, based on the true story of Abernash Bekele Photo courtesy of

SAFE: “Difret” has a twofold meaning in Amharic: “courage” and “the act of being violated.” Why that specific name for the film? How can young people learn from Bekele’s story and have courage in wake of violence?


MM: The word difret is complicated – it has a lot of double meanings. The film is truly about courage, and the word captures two sides of Bekele’s story. In my opinion, it was a lot more about courage and what it takes to change a society. Why Bekele as a young person said “enough” in the wake of traditions of violence, is really something that comes from within you. There is a certain strength that one has to have to do things differently, or to see the world differently than the way it has been handed down to you. In regards to young people, it is important to encourage them to engage and live in a world that they would like to see, on their terms.

SAFE: What has been the impact of “Difret”? What type of response did the film receive when it was released?


MM: The response has been overwhelming. “Difret” has exceeded any expectations that I had for it. It was difficult, at first, to make the film. We couldn’t get funding and people told us that no one would want to see a film like this – and then we go to Sundance, and we win countless awards. “Difret” was the first film to win an audience award at Sundance in Berlin back-to-back. First and foremost, the saying “you will build it, and they will come”, can be applied to the making of the film. There is an audience for these stories for sure, and it is important to remember that when making films such as these. “Difret” has been distributed in so many countries, I have lost count. Everywhere it has been screened, it was embraced across cultures. Although we made a film about Ethiopia, these issues translate to broader audiences.


When people saw the film, they understood how women and girls are treated in almost every facet of society and how the issue of violence cuts across all of them. To see and hear how resounding the responses have been was a very important reminder that in order to have a broader, universal impact, you have to dig into local contexts to make expansive connections.

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Photo: Actress Tizita Hagere, who plays Hirut in the film ‘Difret’, based on the true story of Abernash Bekele
Photo courtesy of

SAFE: In your opinion, how do we challenge social and cultural norms that tell women and girls they are inferior? What are ways in which we can end gender-based violence and practices such as telefa?


MM: Wow, small question. [laughs] Firstly, I think changing culture begins with you. It is important to examine your own social circles and constantly question certain behaviors practiced by your peers, your families, and having the courage to say, “this is not right.” This is not just about women and girls stepping up to the plate, but also about men and boys, saying “this is wrong” within their own social, peer and family circles. There are small steps to take to address the larger struggle of ending violence against women and girls.


Within the women’s movement, we have focused so long on just women, without bringing men into the conversation. Now, we are engaging more men and boys into the fold because they also have a huge role to play in advancing gender equity.

It’s not a certain group or certain people who are responsible for creating change. Everyone has a part to play.


For more information about “Difret”, please visit:


Photo At Top of Page: Actress Tizita Hagere, who plays Hirut in the film ‘Difret’, based on the true story of Abernash Bekele.
Photo courtesy of