The chain of events began in March, 2001, when a 13-year-old girl named Woinshet Zebene was abducted from her Ethiopian village and raped for two days. After she escaped, bloodied and bruised, the suspect was arrested — and then released on bail. That same week, the man abducted Woinshet again, hiding the girl in his brother’s house and raping her for 15 days before she escaped and sought refuge with her grandmother. The abductor’s family came to the house and beat Woinshet, forcing her signature on a marriage contract: At the time, Ethiopian law specified that a man could not be prosecuted for violating a woman he later married.
For many girls and young women in rural Ethiopia, the story would end there. They’d be forced to leave school and to marry. But Woinshet’s father, a poor day laborer, had heard radio ads that defined rape as a prosecutable crime. Going against cultural norms, he supported Woinshet in a court case taken on by the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA). Reported in the Washington Post in 2004, the story caught the eye of Cara Hesse MC/MPA 2000, who happened to be in Ethiopia at the time. As director of public affairs for Pathfinder International, Hesse had just finished co-leading a U.S. congressional delegation to the country for the purpose of assessing U.S. programs focused on family planning and reproductive health. With a few days left before her departure, she decided to visit some of the organizations funded by Pathfinder, a nonprofit that works to improve reproductive health in the developing world.
As it happened, one of those grantees was EWLA. Hesse saw a copy of the Washington Post story at the EWLA office and learned that Woinshet’s abductor had offered her father a $2,500 dowry to drop all charges — a huge sum to a poor family.
“I remember it so vividly,” says Hesse. “It was a Friday at 3 pm. When I understood how difficult this was for Woinshet’s family, I thought that maybe I’d be able to make a statement by raising some money against the dowry offer.”
Over the weekend, Hesse sent an e-mail to two dozen or so contacts, HKS alumni among them. “I hate to ask people for money, but the Post story gave me the confidence and credibility I felt I needed to approach friends for donations,” she recalls. “What I got back was phenomenal. I heard from people I hadn’t even met before, saying that they’d received the e-mail from someone else and wanted to help.” Hesse’s effort raised $5,000, enough to keep Woinshet and three other girls safe and in private school for four years.
Now associate director of patient advocacy at Genzyme, Hesse has stayed in touch with Woinshet over the years. “Her dream is to become a lawyer and to work on women’s rights issues,” she says. As a step toward that goal, a subsequent round of fundraising has recently made it possible for Woinshet to travel to the United States to study English in the Boston area. She is also collaborating on a short documentary with Nicholas Kristof (who wrote of her experience in Half the Sky) and actress Marisa Tomei, who is directing the film. (It will air in 2012 as part of a two-night PBS special, also called Half the Sky.)
Eventually, Woinshet’s abductor was convicted of his crimes and sentenced to 10 years in prison — but the judge released him after a short period for reasons that remain unclear. Despite this setback, her case did change Ethiopian law: A man is no longer absolved of rape by marrying his victim.
“One of the biggest lessons I learned from my experience is how much impact a small, targeted investment can make when supporting an agent of change like Woinshet,” says Hesse. “The first round of funding I raised was such a small amount, but it kept her safe and in school while she and her father fought the injustice. It enabled her father to refuse the dowry and keep fighting.” With that said, Hesse acknowledges the first and most powerful force: the courage and quiet strength Woinshet showed in telling, and retelling, her story.