Mother Elmanesh's condition improved slightly during the course of the night. The fate of Melkam Tesra, 26, another Ethiopian immigrant, was sadly not so fortunate. Last week she was stabbed in all parts of her body by her partner and eventually died of her wounds on Saturday. Tesra, the mother of an eight-year-old girl, and her partner Gatnech, immigrated from Ethiopia to Israel several years ago. Her only sin was wanting to break up with Gatnech.
Two years have passed since Rachel, 25, escaped a similar fate. Her brother had walked in at the exact moment her husband flung an axe over her head. She was seriously wounded but survived the attack. After being discharged from the hospital Rachel filed a complaint against her husband with the police. He has been in jail for over a year but Rachel dreads the moment he is released and comes back to finish the job.
The couple immigrated from Ethiopia years ago and have three kids. Rachel fit in well in Israel, quickly picking up the language and soon pursued a higher education. Her husband remained frustrated at home. As the years passed conflicts between the two began to emerge, primarily concerned with his jealous temperament. He wanted Rachel to go back being the wife she was supposed to be had they stayed in Ethiopia. Her family too preferred her to change her ways, keeping her traditional role as wife, and mainly to refrain from complaining. Since filing the complaint Rachel has been an outcast among her family and community.
'In Ethiopian societies norm is stronger than any law' (Archive photo: Ido Erez)
"When she comes to the center to rest, have a cup of coffee or take some clothes it tears my heart apart," says Liza Nikolychuk, director of the sexual assault victims support center in south Israel. "I ask her 'What will you do when your husband will be released from jail' and she answers: 'I have no choice, I'll go back to him.'"
Code of silence
Rachel is one of dozens of Ethiopian women seeking support at the center every year. "Five years ago we had a young woman, a mother of five, come in who ran away from home and filed a complaint," Nikolychuk says. "She was in a battered women's shelter, pulled herself together and lived independently for a few months. She was forced to return to her husband at the pressure of her family. She was murdered a week later."
The center provides women who suffer abuse with legal aid, consultation and help from Amharic and Tigre speaking volunteers. "Many time we try to help them break the code of silence," Nikolychuk says. "For the most part, an Ethiopian woman will not complain. This is a very quiet population where one angry moment could cost a woman her life. We can find out about the distress from the children. They will voice what's going on at home in various ways in school, with a word here and there. The problem is that most of the time we don't listen.
"Many times violence comes from financial or emotional distress. Divides are created between the men and women. Women go out studying and working and the men, who back in Ethiopia were the breadwinners, sit unemployed and frustrated at home. They discover the women are not abiding by the rules they set her. One of the main problems is that we in Israel primarily care for the women and not the men. Even if the woman leaves a violent home and changes, her man will always stay in the same place."
Social worker Miri Benshalom-Dror, director of the battered women's shelter in Jerusalem adds: "Not to generalize, Ethiopian men have lost their dominant position in their families. We had a woman at the shelter whose husband was a mayor on Ethiopia and here he remained unemployed and could not bear this frustration.
"Women in Ethiopia did not used to complain about violence and in some places it was legitimate to beat women. Here the women learn that violence towards them is not legitimate. Another characteristic among traditional and Ethiopian families is that the norm is stronger than any law. That’s why the women's families always pressure them into getting back together with their abusive husbands. "
In the past year, 16 women have been murdered by their partners in Israel, three of which were of Ethiopian descent. Many others suffered extreme violence or escaped a similar fate. "It's a very high percentage in relation to the rate of Ethiopian women in the Israeli population," says Ronit Ehrenfreund-Cohen, director of women's status promotion at WIZO.
"These are just the murder cases. In three of our family violence support centers and two of our battered women's shelters we get dozens of complaints from Ethiopian women who survived murder attempts."
The reason for family violence among Ethiopian immigrants appears to be related to the immigration aspect. "The move from one country to another and from one culture to another is always traumatic," Ehrenfreund-Cohen explains. "That is why it's important that the State of Israel also address cultural issues."
According to Ehrenfreund-Cohen, battered Ethiopian women are usually financially dependent on their husbands and extremely afraid of them. "It's not a rarity that after a woman escapes to a shelter with her children she is forced to return to her abusive husband for financial reasons," she explains.
"In many cases we discover that the husband deliberately refrained from paying property tax, water and electricity bills leaving the debt to his wife. When the woman leaves the shelter she caves under the financial burden. In the past, we promoted a bill together with Knesset members Ilan Gilon and Dov Khenin to provide income support to women in shelters amounting to NIS 2 million ($540,000), however the proposal is being delayed."
More support needed
David Mehrat, a senior official at the Education Ministry wishes to avoid generalizations. "Not every member of the Ethiopian community who stumbles across a rough situation responds with violence towards their wife," he says. "There are immigrants who don't handle the absorption challenge well and obviously they require a much more intense support. Sadly, reality shows this is not being provided in an adequate manner."
Six years ago the Immigration and Absorption Ministry started the "Bridges" program coordinating the operation of Russian and Amharic speaking social workers in 30 cities with a high rate of immigrants. A large part of the ministry's work is devoted to raising awareness, making services accessible, training caretakers working with immigrants and preventing violence. "We’re working together with the Social Affairs Ministry," says Sarah Cohen, director of Social Affairs at the Immigration and Absorption Ministry.
"What we add to the mix is a cultural response tailored to the various cultural characteristics of the different countries of origin. In the past years we have witnessed a constant rise in the number of Ethiopian women seeking help as well as a rise in the number of Ethiopian men coming for treatment at the family violence prevention centers. Nevertheless, it is clear there is still much more work to be done."
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