This Would-Be Child Bride Killed Her Captor — & Changed A Culture

Photo: Courtesy of Truth Aid Media.
Aberash Bekele's story is told in the new film "Difret."
As a 14-year-old living in Ethiopia, Aberash Bekele dreamed of going to school, moving to a city, and leading a life where she helped others.

But then she was abducted by a group of horsemen and raped by a farmer who wanted to force her to be his bride. In an attempt to escape, she shot and killed one of her captors.

The nightmare didn't end there. In a culture where forced marriage by abduction was all too routine, Bekele was forced to stand trial for his murder. But with the help of a lawyer named Meaza Ashenafi and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, Bekele was eventually acquitted. The case was hailed as an unprecedented win in the fight to protect girls in Ethiopia from kidnapping and child marriage.

Nearly two decades later, Bekele's story of courage is back in the spotlight in the feature film Difret — a development she hopes can further inspire and change the lives of girls around the world.

"It's not easy to be the first to do something that's never been done," Bekele told Refinery29 through a translator, film producer Mehret Mandefro. "That was a very heavy, tough experience to go through. But I'm glad that heavy and tough experience will be something that will be used for the benefit of others."

Difret,
which counts Angelina Jolie Pitt as an executive producer, has already won awards at festivals including Sundance and the Pan African Film Festival. It hit theaters in New York today (October 23), and will expand to other cities soon.

It's really my hope that I can help other women so that they don't go through that kind of experience.

Aberash Bekele
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Mandefro, who grew up in Ethiopia but had not heard of Bekele's story until she was approached with the script for Difret, told Refinery29 that she hopes the film sends the message that "culture can change."

"I think people have this preconceived notion that [culture] can never change and these issues are so hard and people just give up, but this story really shows you that things can change, but it takes courageous individuals," said Mandefro, the producer and president of production company Truth Aid Media.

"So it's really important for people all around the world, here and there, to support the courageous individuals doing the work," Mandefro added.

Child marriage — including those forced by abductions — remain a serious threat to girls in Ethiopia. One 2011 government survey found that close to two-thirds of women there were married before the age of 18, UNICEF reported.

Nearly 8% were kidnapped and forced to become someone's bride. It's an issue that resonates beyond the country's borders: UNICEF estimates that 700 million women living today were married before age 18.
Photo: Courtesy of Truth Aid Media.
Tizita Hagere as "Hirut Assefa" in "Difret." The film is based on the experience of a woman named Aberash Bekele.
"Everywhere we've played in the world, people have come up to us and said, 'Oh, this happens here, too,' the numbers are so large." Mandefro said. "It's coming from all parts of the culture, which is why we need an unprecedented amount of solidarity to tackle something at that scale."

Economic empowerment and education are key parts of that fight.

"Unless girls are educated and empowered — Aberash’s dream — then they can be subjected to violence,” Ashenafi, the lawyer who helped secure Bekele's release, told Refinery29.

Bekele, who is called Hirut in the film, was originally scared about the prospect of her story going public again. She had been living in exile from her community and had faced threats from the family of the captor she killed. She even fought successfully to block an initial screening in Ethiopia. But she said she decided to "use the film as a tool for education and to speak about these issues." She has worked for a local NGO and is starting her own organization, called Women for Women, that is focused on helping women in her home country.

"It's really my hope that I can help other women so that they don't go through that kind of experience," Bekele said.

For more information on the film, and for theater information, visit Difret.com.
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