By Amber Henshaw
ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA – Kamilat Mehdi, 21, had a bright future ahead of her. She dreamt about doing a degree and becoming an air hostess.
All that changed one night when she was walking home from work with her two sisters and a stalker threw sulphuric acid in her face.
She is now lying in hospital disfigured beyond recognition.
Her skin is red raw, her eyelids have almost been entirely destroyed and her hairline has been burnt back.
“I feel very sick now. Every day they need to do something without anaesthetic so it is hard to accept and it is very painful,” says Kamilat.
Her sisters, Zeyneba and Zubyeda, escaped with lesser injuries but their faces were also burnt by the acid.
“We were on our way home from our parents’ shop. I was with my sisters,” Kamilat says.
“One guy came and he looked like a drunkard but he wasn’t drunk. He forced us to go down a dark alley and then someone came and threw acid in our faces.”
Kamilat fell to the floor unconscious while her sisters tried to get help. She lay there until her brother Ismael arrived.
Ismael says his sister knew her attacker.
“He bothered her for a long time – at least four years,” he says.
“He gave her a hard time but she didn’t tell the family for fear that something would happen to them. He was always saying he would use a gun on them.”
This incident has sent shockwaves through the community in the capital, Addis Ababa, and amongst Ethiopians abroad.
Ismael says he has received calls from Ethiopians living around the world saying how angry and shocked they were about the attack.
Two men have appeared in court in Addis Ababa in connection with the attack.
“I hope the court will impose a proportional penalty within a short period of time,” Justice Minister Assefa Kiseto says.
“That could make others learn from this and refrain from committing this crime. I think this kind of crime is a crime against the whole nation not just a crime against Kamilat.”
Attacks like this are rare in Ethiopia but women’s groups in Addis Ababa say that stalking and sexual harassment are common problems.
The Ending Violence Against Women report published by the United Nations at the end of last year said almost 60% of Ethiopian women were subjected to sexual violence at some point in their lives.
Mahdere Paulos from the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association says they would like to see a specific provision in Ethiopian law that tackles stalking and harassment so that there is better protection for young girls like Kamilat in the future.
“The problem starts with stalking – the end result is something else,” she says.
“It might end in grave bodily injury, it might end in death and it might end in different difficult situations and that’s why we want it to be taken seriously.”
Following the uproar at Kamilat’s attack, the Supreme Court announced that it has put in place procedures to help pass verdicts on such cases within two days.
And Ms Mahdere says some progress has been made by the government over the last few years in tackling violence against women.
There is a newly established ministry of women’s affairs; there was a push before the 2005 election to get more women into parliament and there has been a complete overhaul of the penal code to beef up laws to protect women.
But in some rural areas, the traditional practice of abducting young girls and forcibly marrying them remains common – in one region it accounts for some 92% of all marriages, according to the most recent figures from 2003.
Kamilat and her sister have now flown to Paris for medical treatment, which is being financed by businessman Sheikh Mohammed Al Amoudi.