Maria was born in Addis Ababa to a large family of 13 girls and 4 boys. Her primary education was at the Cathedral School – people in her community used to wonder why a Muslim girl would go to a Catholic school, but her father, a devoted man, believed in good education for his daughters and insisted on the school.
Soon after completing her secondary education at the Empress Menen School for Girls, Maria fell in love with a man of a different ethnic background and religion (but converted to Islam). She married him despite objections of her family. After the birth of their first child, Maria tried to attend Asmara University but found the schedule difficult with a young baby. The young couple moved back to Addis Ababa and while she was pregnant with her second son, her husband was arrested and later killed by the military regime – she never received official notification of his death. At the time Maria had been working for the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in Addis as a judge and decided to go back to school for a Diploma in Law at AAU while raising her two children alone.
With the change in government in 1991, Maria was selected to join the Federal High Court and became a judge and served in civil and criminal bench. While she was a judge, she and other women lawyers brought the idea of forming the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) paving the way for its formation where she served as a board member.
Gender-based violence (GBV) in Ethiopia
Women and girls in Ethiopia are vulnerable to all forms of violence. Despite the existence of violence-prevention laws in Ethiopia which prohibit violence, there are an unacceptably high number of GBV cases.
Many communities, including both men and women, are unaware of the law and women’s rights. Economic instability, drought and food shortages force women and girls to move into towns seeking refuge and employment. They believe that taking such risks will mean a better life but in reality, many are left homeless, jobless and vulnerable to exploitation and violence.
The survivors who report their abuse to the authorities face an uncertain future. Lack of resources mean the authorities do not have the facilities to shelter and keep them safe whilst investigating their cases.
Maria did the work nobody wanted to do, serving the needs of survivors including meeting their basic needs of food and clothing.
Working in the legal system as a woman, Maria was aware that women and girls were not represented, as professionals or clients. Many women were not able to seek legal assistance due to a lack of awareness of women’s rights, dependence on male family members and pressure to raise a family.
The more Maria became involved in supporting women, the more gaps appeared. Many women who she represented had been abused by family members or were not welcome home after speaking out about their abuse. Maria could not simply stand by and not help.
Shortly after forming EWLA, Maria left her role as a judge and became an independent lawyer, providing free legal aid to over 8,000 women. She travelled all over the country, raising awareness of women rights, provided paralegal training, encouraged the participation of women in all regional elections, and advocated for the revision of the family and penal code and pension regulation.
In 2000, Maria led campaigns within EWLA and with other women’s rights groups, culminating in a huge demonstration on the issue of women’s rights. Maria and the group wanted to do something more concrete after the end of the campaign period and created the Association for Women’s Sanctuary and Development (AWSAD), which was formally registered in 2003 and opened its first safe house for abused women, girls and children.
With six safe houses across Ethiopia, AWSAD is a beacon of hope to those who have experienced domestic violence or abuse. Staffed 24 hours a day by AWSAD staff, they offer more than a safe place to sleep. Along with food and medication, AWSAD provides counselling and legal follow-up, basic literacy courses, art and dance therapy, self-defence classes and vocational skills training so that women can leave the shelter as confident, independent and workplace-ready individuals.
The partnership between Ethiopiaid and AWSAD was formed in 2012 to help AWSAD work towards their vision of a violence-free society. In the last year alone, 3,769 survivors of gender-based violence and 1,223 of their children were given safe shelter and support.
Maria continues to raise the profile of women’s rights, secure justice for victims of abuse and pave the way for powerful women in leadership in Ethiopia. Her work directly impacts the lives of women every day, as Nebiyu Mehari (AWSAD staff member) said, ‘she has dedicated her life for the cause and her work’.
Make a donation today, to support Maria’s work protecting and promoting the human rights of women and girls.