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.