The Woyingi Blog

What happened to the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyer Association?

Posted in African Women, Countries: Ethiopia, Domestic Violence, Domestic Violence, Ethiopian Women by the woyingi blogger on October 11, 2010

I was recently searching for the website of the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyer Association (EWLA). I wanted to add it to my African Links Page. I had first learned about the EWLA when its Director Mahdere Paulos came to Ottawa on a tour of the Canadian produced documentary It’s Time: African Women Join Hands Against Domestic Violence in 2008. I had a chance to speak with Mahdere Paulos and even still have her business card. But through trawling the internet I was surprised to discover that the EWLA website is no longer online and according to Ethiopian bloggers Paulos has fled Ethiopia. What’s happened?

First, let me describe the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyer Association and its work:

Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) is an organisation that has been working since 1995 to raise awareness of women’s legal rights in Ethiopia using diverse media such as newsletters and the internet. ELWA aims to influence the drawing up of laws, ensuring that gender is taken into account, and to put in place practical measures to help economically poor women access legal services. The organisation hopes to put women’s rights on the government agenda, with the ultimate goal of eliminating all forms of legally and traditionally sanctioned discrimination against women.

EWLA uses newsletters, the media, and the internet to get its message across. For example, EWLA also has a 10-minute educational radio programme that airs once a week on the national Radio Service (Saturday mornings from 8:40am to 8:50am). The association also has a documentation centre that provides reading materials on women’s issues and other related matters to students and individual researchers. These communication tools are meant to ensure that EWLA’s research on the social, economic and political impact of discrimination against women reaches key people in government and throughout civil society.

Interpersonal approaches also characterise ELWA’s work. The organisation has an ongoing public education training programme for women on women’s rights, assertiveness and reproductive health and rights. The objective of the training is to enhance awareness on women’s rights among female students and women workers.

Mahdere Paulos, Former Director of EWLA

The documentary It’s Time is part of a larger project undertaken by the Law Courts Education Society of British Columbia (now Justice Education Society) in partnership with organizations in Ethiopia and South Africa to develop training for all levels of the criminal justice system, such as police, prosecutors and judges to work together to combat domestic violence in these countries.  British Columbia’s own justice system’s experience with integrating their criminal justice system’s handling of domestic violence is the basis for this training. According to a 2009 Law Now article:

In the early 1980s, British Columbia’s justice system lacked an integrated plan amongst police, prosecutors, and victim service workers that dealt with domestic violence. These stakeholders were united in 1985 by a training program created by the Victim Services and Crime Prevention Division. The program defined domestic violence, identified the stakeholders’ roles, and emphasized strong communication between those stakeholders.

Since 1989, the Law Courts Education Society (LCES) has been dedicated to improving access to the legal system through hands-on, targeted, two-way education between the public and those working in the justice system. As a non-profit organization with ongoing public and private sector financial and volunteer support, the LCES is able to offer a unique and comprehensive collection of justice-related educational services and work effectively towards creating a justice system that is accessible to all.

Ethiopia only began addressing women’s rights at the legislative level in 1995. In 2005, the country revised its penal code to outlaw domestic violence, however, it was apparent to organizations like EWLA that Ethiopian authorities needed training on how to address domestic violence. EWLA’s Director Paulos led the way on developing a project to get training from the Law Courts Education Society in Ethiopia. According to the 2009 Law Now article:

The project would face many obstacles including an existing lack of trust in the justice system. In addition to early marriage, prevalent cultural practices included rape, abduction, and female genital mutilation. Traditionally, domestic violence was considered a crime only if it resulted in serious injury. Police did not feel compelled to get involved in these family issues, thus allowing the practice of a husband beating his wife to root itself in Ethiopian society.

The following are comments from members of the Ethiopian police force who participated in these trainings:

I had no idea about domestic violence previously. During this training I called my wife to apologize for what has happened during our married life.

We also need to address gaps in the law for women who are abducted, raped and then forced to marry the rapist. Other men often facilitate the rape. No one will marry her so she is forced to marry the rapist and then expected to take him food in jail several times a day. It is double victimization.

When I met Paulos in 2008, I had no indication that the work of her organization was in jeopardy, although it did face obstacles financial obstacles like most NGOs. However, it appears that something has gone very wrong.

It seems that this is not the first time EWLA has had trouble. In 2001, the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice place a suspension on EWLA that was eventually lifted subsequent to the international response from activists and women’s organizations from around the world. During this suspension, EWLA’s bank accounts were frozen. At the time of this suspension it appears that the Ethiopian government did not give any clear reason why they wanted EWLA shut down but activists suspected that is was part of an overall effort on the part of the government to suppress independent civil society organizations.

But recently in 2009, Ethiopian blogs began reporting that EWLA’s Director, Paulos, had fled to Kenya in July of that year after resigning from EWLA. I haven’t found anything on the internet to confirm or deny this. However, I did confirm that Paulos is no longer the Director of EWLA and that in March of 2010, Paulos made a presentation in the United States to the Ethiopian Lawyers Association of North America about her work with EWLA. What really happened and why?

Mahdere Paulos is quite an accomplished women. According to the It’s Time website:

Mahdere Paulos holds a law degree from Addis Ababa University. At 23 she was a high-court judge in Addis Ababa. She has practiced law since 1996, and has worked with EWLA in a variety of capacities including legal aid officer, paralegal trainer, and board member. She has been Executive Director of EWLA since April 2005. Recognized internationally for her advocacy and public education initiatives on gender-based violence and child marriage, Ms. Paulos has presented at numerous African and international conferences, including the Joint Consortium on Gender Based Violence in Dublin, Ireland, December 2007. In 2006 the International Centre for Research on Women hosted a series of speaking appearances by Ms Paulos on child marriage in cities across the US, including Washington DC, Chicago, and New York. She has met with government officials in the U.S. State Department, USAID, and Congress, as well as with international nongovernmental organizations, partner organizations, and the press to raise awareness about the problem of child marriage. Ms Paulos is the Chairperson of the Kembatta Women Self-Help Center, and the Network of Ethiopian Women Association. She is an advisory board member of the Initiative Africa Organization.

I found an article online that alleged that EWLA had to let go of 70% of its staff as of May 2010 due to a shortage of funds. According to the article:

Zenaye Tadesse, Managing Director of the association, told The Reporter that the shortage of money came about after the association re-registered as a local Non-Profit Organization (NGO) as per the new Charities and Societies Proclamation, which mandates 90 percent of its funds to be raised from local donors.

According to Zenaye, aside from cutting jobs, the association has been forced to stop its various activities and has been limited to providing free legal consultations in Addis Ababa and six regional states through volunteers. Among the activities that have been cut back are undertaking researches, awareness creation and trainings, and publication and dissemination of informational materials.

The association used to get as much as 11 million birr from various international rights groups, donors as well as contributions from its members. EWLA, which claims to have helped close to 80,000 women since its inception, needs as much as 8 million birr a year to implement its goals. Zenaye added that the association needs 1,200,000 birr a year just to provide free legal consultation service.

This new Charities and Societies Proclamation also affected activities of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council and the Ethiopian Bar Association. I wonder why there is this new law that seems to be deliberately trying to cut off the funding that would allow Ethiopian civil society organizations to be fully independent and thus able to criticize government policies. According to an Expert Brief from the Council on Foreign Relations by B. E. Bruton, the United States increased reliance on Ethiopia to police the Horn of Africa in the War on Terror has actually exacerbated conflict in this region and allowed for the entrenchment of an authoritarian political regime in the country:

Arguably, U.S. reliance on Ethiopian military might and intelligence has served to exacerbate instability in Somalia. Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, and the extended presence of Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu, instead of quelling conflict, has triggered a local backlash that has served as a rallying point for local extremists. It was the development of a complex insurgency against the Ethiopian occupation that effectively catapulted a fringe jihadist youth militia, the Shabaab, to power. International jihadists have now capitalized on the local insurgency, and on U.S. support of the Ethiopian invasion, as an opportunity to globalize Somalia’s conflict. The presence of foreign expertise, fighters, and funding has helped to tip the balance of power in favor of Somalia’s extremist groups. Additionally, there is growing concern that the conflict in the Ogaden may give birth to indigenous jihadist movements.

Anti-American sentiment in Somalia is pervasive, and stems in large part from U.S. complicity with the Ethiopian invasion and reported Ethiopian human rights abuses in Somalia. Ethiopia has also reportedly engaged in human rights abuses within its Ogaden region, which borders Somalia, where the government is engaged in a counterinsurgency effort against an ethnic Somali separatist movement. Though Ethiopia has denied these charges, human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented atrocities committed by both sides in that conflict. The U.S. decision to withdraw its military personnel from the Ogaden in April 2006, and the subsequent failure of the international community to seek accountability for these atrocities, has cemented a widespread public perception in Ethiopia and Somalia that the United States is willing to turn a blind eye on human rights abuses in exchange for cooperation in the counterterror effort.

This Expert Brief also poses the following question:

Is Ethiopia still a democratic country, or is the regime of President Meles Zenawi regime headed towards dictatorship? The perception that Ethiopia is a fundamentally democratic country remains strong, particularly among European nations. The lack of any consensus would require the United States to take a lead and potentially isolated role in pressuring Ethiopia for reform.

Finally, U.S. efforts to promote democratic reform in Ethiopia are impeded by a lack of willing partners on the ground. Democratic civil society groups generally fear for their safety and are not willing to mobilize in a public advocacy effort. This means that U.S. efforts to counteract repressive measures by the government will not be supported–or legitimized–by a corresponding local effort. International organizations that might have engaged with opposition political voices have already been expelled from the country.

I am planning on contacting the EWLA’s Facebook Group in order to learn more about its cuts in funding and what may have happened to Mahdere Paulos. If you have any information, please pass it along.

Update: October 21, 2010. I have been able to correspond with Mahdere Paulos. She really has fled Ethiopia due to fear of government retaliation. According to her, the government interpreted her outspokenness against the Charities and Societies Proclamation as opposition. She says that she and the EWLA were also accused of giving false information about the government that ended up in the US State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report on Ethiopia. This is quite troubling news.

Further Reading:

It’s Time: African Women Join Hands Against Domestic Violence Documentary Website

Joining hands to stop domestic violence in Africa by Kevin Smith in LawNow July-August 2009 (article available online)

Amnesty International: Ethiopian Parliment Adopts Repressive New NGO Law (January 8, 2009)

Human Rights Watch: Analysis of the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Proclamation in its Draft Form

Analysis of the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Proclamation (NGO Law) by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

U.S. Policy Shift Needed in the Horn of Africa by B. E. Bruton 2009 Council on Foreign Relations Expert Brief available online

Human Rights Watch: Ethiopia Donor Aid Supports Repression (October 19th 2010)

Human Rights Watch: Yoseph Mulugeta, former Secretary General of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (October 8th 2010)