The Story of Woineshet Zebene

Woineshet Zebene grew up in a rural area in Ethiopia where the customary way of getting a bride was for a young man and several of his friends to kidnap a girl and rape her, thereby making her unmarriageable to anyone except the one who deflowered her.

This happened to Woineshet when she was 13 years old. She was taken from her home in the middle of the night and repeatedly raped for two days.

In the time-honored tradition, if the boy was ever accused of rape, the court and the village elders would essentially say to the girl and her parents, “Look, he’s a nice boy. If you prosecute him for rape, he will be ruined. It will disrupt our society. So just go along with it and marry him.” Almost all the girls did.

But Woineshet did not, and her father backed her decision. She didn’t want to marry the boy and she thought the whole custom was wrong.

She sought an education.

She went on to become a lawyer and then returned home to change the custom through education — showing boys that these girls are human beings, that they have a right to choose, that rape is brutal and cruel, etc.

Believe it or not, the boys weren’t thinking that way. They were thinking that when they had a crush on a girl, the only way to make sure they married her and nobody else did, was to rape her and then offer to marry her to save her from a life of being shunned.

Over the decades, this logic had solidified into a custom.

But Woineshet destroyed the custom. A social value was overridden by an intellectual value (read more about different levels of values here). Whatever disruption it caused to the social structure was worth the gain in “rightness.” It isn’t right to force a girl to marry by rape.

“That’s not right” is a moral-intellectual principle, and it overrode a social value (that this is our custom and if you change it, you will upset the social order).

This is one of many excellent illustrations of overriding well-established social values with higher “intellectual” values in the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and in a film by the Girl Effect.

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