Despite this high expectations, the court passed a sentence that appears rather insensitive and somehow discourteous to the nationwide women’s movement. The main question here is what this decision really means to women in Ethiopia.
After the sentence was announced, one that hardly met expectations, many started to doubt whether there will be any change on the direction of women’s rights in Ethiopia. Many also started asking how far the pressure can go if the entire movement remains dependent on individual cases, which has high probability of ending up discouraging the movement itself. The question also raises one of the critical questions of all times, that is, should we treat all crimes committed on women as a matter of gender? And will the movement in general benefit from such an approach?
Undeniably, women in Ethiopia are victims of several gender-based crimes: rape, sexual harassment, discriminations based on gender, harmful traditional practices and several other crimes targeting entirely women takes place every minute of everyday. However, sometimes, it is important to question if all crimes committed on women are gender-based. The relevance of this question might lessen the disappointment women are suffering currently as an outcome of Fisseha’s sentence. If the crime is one of those Gender Based Violence, then the law has special answers to it. For example, our criminal code specifies crimes committed against women with a punishment that takes their gender relevance into consideration.
Gender Based Violence is a term we use to refer violent acts that are primarily or exclusively committed against women. Recently, there seems to be a universal understanding that gender based crimes is part of what is known as hate crime. A crime becomes a hate crime when it is motivated by bias or prejudice against a person or people perceived to be part of a certain group. It is entirely intended to induce fear, and cause psychological harm. This is one of the reasons violence against women, like rape, are not about sexual desire, rather intended to maintain the power imbalance by inducing fear and insecurity among women.
However, if we have to define every crime against women has some gender connotation in it, then, the ultimate question will be how far the advocacy based on such crimes can be effective in advancing the movement for women’s rights in Ethiopia.
The movement towards ensuring the rights of women will suffer for two main reasons when we try to use crimes committed against women as an exclusive means of advocacy. First, experience in the past has taught us that, especially when the movement is based on cases, which is common in Ethiopia, it has a better chance of moving backward. This is because, cases in the court of law are unpredictable, and to obvious reasons, it is fundamentally wrong (based on the basic legal principles of the rule of law and presumption of innocence) to influence them by demonstration or petition. Assuming that courts prioritize the rule of law, their decision is entirely based on the evidence that is presented and what the law provides for the specific crime. That seems to be why, regardless of the huge campaign waged against Fisseha, the court passed a sentence that disappointed many.
Therefore, the usual trend by women’s rights activists in Ethiopia, which is organizing campaigns and demonstration only when women are attacked for whatever reasons, might have negative consequences. Instead of empowering women and making the issue a public agenda, women rights activists take a risk of tarnishing the little hope there is for women when they base their movement on criminal cases which they do not control the outcome in any way. Understandably, courts function despite the activists interpretation and opinion of the case.
This is obvious for the activists who are legal professionals. When a man is charged with attempted murder and possession of illegal armament, it was obvious he was not looking for life imprisonment or death penalty, no matter how many petitions are collected or demonstrations take place. That is where the activists must do their calculation on the consequence of the product of their case based advocacy on women in general. This is because, the decision sends a strong twisted message that says it was a women’s rights question (since they have been advocating it be) but the court actually gave a decision encouraging for potential offenders. For millions of women who take the words of the activists, it is imaginable how disappointing this ending can be.
The strategy that might keep women’s spirit up is pushing for a real progress through policy changes, amendment of laws and trying to get more gender sensitive laws from the lawmakers by regularly advocating the matter. Only this will make courts pass sentences that serve the sentiment of women.
The second relevant and crucial point in this case is, even if the criminal – Fisseha in our case - received the maximum sentence possible, let us say life imprisonment or death penalty, will this deter potential offenders from committing such crime? Women’s rights activists have been saying that severe penalties will ensure crimes will not be committed on women in the future. Of course, deterrence is one of the many justifications for criminal punishment. Among Criminologists, however, there is a controversy that is as old as the concept of crime itself on the point that if deterrence can actually be achieved through punishments.
The prevalent attitude these days is that it is morally unacceptable to aggravate punishment on the offender entirely for the purpose of deterrence. Beyleveld, one of the prominent criminologists states as follows, when arguing for this position. “…there exists no scientific basis for expecting that a general deterrence policy which does not involve unacceptable interference with human rights will do anything to control crime rates…” Based on this statement, we can achieve deterrence only if we are willing to take the risk of violating the human rights of the offender. In the modern society we are living in, we cannot expect courts to hang a person to make a point.
Though scholars like Bentham made a significant point that man is rational being who chooses between courses of action having first calculated the risks of pain and pleasure, the prevalence thought is that criminals do not make rational choices. This is because they act, in the majority of the cases out of emotional instability through lack of self-control. If we actually go with this line of argument, shouting for the penalties to get severe is like throwing darts in the dark. People are law abiding when they are in their rational state of mind rather than based on fear of penalties.
The bottom line is that we need to be cautious when making strategies for the movement on women’s rights. Before initiating campaigns and demonstrations, activists must assess the significance and the possible outcomes of a certain case on the movement in general. This is because, once the matter is associated with the movement of women’s rights, the decision of the court has an effect on all women in the country. Many who do not understand the details, but only expect a sentence that will be a lesson for every man, are disappointed and become more insecure than ever because of the outcome.
Women’s rights movement in Ethiopia needs a long-term strategy that empowers women and give them the strength to stand up for their rights under any situations. The present startagy, however, might negatively affect women by reminding them they are always victims and even the justice system is not on their side. This obviously ends up putting the movement in a more fragile position.