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Women race to end violence in the Ethiopian millennium

Thousands of women ran, jogged and walked through the streets of Ethiopia 's capital Addis Ababa on Sunday, April 1, 2007 in a bid to end violence against women and girls in the country.

Participants of the fourth edition of the annual women-only five kilometer race, Women First Run, a by-product of the world renown 10 kilometer Great Ethiopian Run dedicated the race to ‘ending violence against women in the new Ethiopian millennium.

The race was sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund, DKT - a social marketing company - Concern Ethiopia , Irish Aid, Sheraton Addis , Addis Ababa city Administration Women's Affairs Office, and Aqua Addis. 

Ethiopia 's Asselefech Mergia won the 2007 Confidence WOMEN FIRST Run 5km, followed by several high profile international athletes, who for the first time this year took part in the race. International athletes were from Kenya , the United Kingdom and Australia.

"Together we can end violence against women for good," said Haile Gebreselassie, Ethiopia´s top runner, at the end of the race. Gebreselassie is the patron of the Great Ethiopian Run, an athletics promotion organization and primary organizer of the women´s race.

Women surrounding the podium had clamored for Gebreselassie´s presence. As Ethiopia´s all time athlete his influence has led thousands of young people to running as a career.

"When I started five years ago, women were not given the same consideration, but this has gradually changed,” said Gelete Burka, one of Ethiopia´s top athletes, who came first in last year´s World Cross Country Championship in France, at a pre-race press conference.

Post race, the crowd was hushed when reminded of the terrible situation of violence against women in this country. Gebreselassie and Sheikh Al Amoudi are paying for the flights and treatment of a young woman, Kamilat Muhdi, 
who recently suffered almost total disfigurement as a consequence of an assault with sulphuric battery acid.

An allegedly spurned admirer attacked the 21 year-old woman with battery acid, burning off the flesh on her face, melting away her eyelids, nose and mouth. 

”The violence has to stop now,” said Monique Rakotomalala, UNFPA's Ethiopia Country Representative. 

The theme of this year´s race was a timely reminder of the situation of millions of women in this East African nation, where wife or partner beating is current practice. A World Health organization (WHO) study, in 2003 in rural Ethiopia showed, for example, that 71 per cent of women surveyed who had ever been in a relationship had suffered some sort of physical or sexual violence. Moreover, the Demographic and Health Survey conducted in 2005 showed that 81% of women say that a husband is justified to beat his wife for such reasons as burning food or not finishing housework, reflecting the low self-esteem of Ethiopia´s women.

”Stop violence against women in the new Millennium, they are the bedrock of society,” Vera Fernandes, Portugal´s Ambassador to Ethiopia repeated the race slogan. Fernandes, a keen runner, said that one of the best things that can be done for women in any country is to give them the opportunity to acquire self confidence and dignity that comes with playing sports, and especially running. 

”Women need to show that they are good, and that they can do things well," she said. 

But athletic competitions such as the Great Ethiopian Run are also a chance for women to get together and show that they are united in a cause.

”Ethiopia ,” says the UNFPA´s Rakotomalala, “will only achieve development once it includes women as full and active members of society, with all entitlements and privileges citizenship entails.” 

”First the violence has to stop. It has to stop now. Women have to be respected partners in society. Otherwise, no matter how many MDGs are set, full development of society will not happen,” she said.

One participant in the Women First Run 5 km race said that “ a stern legal measure should be taken on the perpetrators of gender-based violence” and added that “gender-based violence should in no way be tolerated and forgiven”.

The Ethiopian Government has come up with a highly commendable effort recently with respect to tackling gender-based violence. Vice-president of the Federal Supreme Court, Menbere-Tsehay Taddesse, was quoted by the press as saying that the court has put in place procedures that help pass verdicts on cases of violence and crimes against women within two days. The sentencing of a man convicted of raping a child to rigorous life imprisonment recently is a case in point in this regard.