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Family Matters

Church efforts to strengthen Ethiopia’s families begin with listening and mutual respect

text by Emeline Wuilbercq with photographs by Petterik Wiggers

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The first thing that catches the eye in Belay Tesema’s comfortable living room is a big poster. Hung in a corner, it features pictures of him and his wife, Adanech Sebro, and their two sons, both wearing the mortar caps of graduation. Above the photographs two simple words are inscribed: “good family.”

When one pays them a visit, the truth of these words is plain.

“We have a strong family,” says Mr. Tesema, 48, adding that there is only one person missing in the picture: Samrawit, their daughter and youngest child, who is the leader of the local Catholic youth prayer group.

The couple has enjoyed 26 years of marriage. They have spent those years living in Wonji — a town in central Ethiopia located about 60 miles southeast of the capital of Addis Ababa — the site of the country’s oldest sugar factory, which was established in the early 1950’s. The area used to be home to thousands of Catholics, when the Consolata Missionaries were active locally, but the population of all peoples plummeted in the region with the sociopolitical and economic policies of the Derg regime in the 1980’s and early 90’s.

“We’re a bit unique here,” Mr. Tesema adds, referring not only to their faith tradition, but also their harmonious marriage. In the neighborhood, he often sees couples wrangling, with shouting matches and worse.

“The husbands are intolerant for minor cases,” Mr. Tesema laments. “They poison the situation. They are disrespectful to women and they sometimes beat their spouses.”

Mrs. Sebro gives a nod of confirmation.

In Ethiopia, women are often subject to abuse. According to the 2016 Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey, nearly a quarter of women surveyed have suffered physical violence, and one in ten surveyed was raped. Other surveys have reported even higher figures among their sampled population segments — notably, a 2005 World Health Organization survey reported that 59 percent of respondents in a rural district south of Addis Ababa had experienced sexual assault at some point in their lifetime.

Despite governmental attention to the matter, and more women gaining important roles in political office, spousal abuse continues unabated.

In their neighborhood, Mrs. Sebro tries her best to console the wives.

“We intervene as shimagele,” Mr. Tesema sums up with a smile — a word for wise elders who are supposed to reconcile people and resolve conflicts in the community. They provide perspective from their own relationship, where they work to resolve any disagreements through dialogue, and take care not to argue in front of their children.

“We actually don’t do this so much as Catholics — just as a family,” Mrs. Sebro says.

“We try to share who we are. And now, whenever we see difficulties in a couple, we have the courage to help, to confront sometimes and to support the others.”

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