They were looking everywhere for the girl and they were beginning to fear the worst. Even though what had happened to her was extremely common in their world, everyone’s hearts were broken when it happened. They all knew that the more time that had passed meant the smaller their chances would be to find her. Suddenly, they had a lead, so they began to follow it. As soon as they arrived at the spot, the noticed something that went against everything they thought to be possible.
Up until this point, the little girl had lived a pretty average life. The girl was the youngest of four siblings and was growing up in the outskirts of Bita Genet, a little town in southwestern Ethiopia. For everyone in her town, agriculture was their main focus, and since she was growing older, she was learning the trade, as well. Now that she was 12 years old, she was getting a lot more responsibilities, but she was also finding a lot more danger.
Bita Genet is considered one of the major towns in the Keffa Zone, which forms part of the Nationalities, People’s Region, and the Southern Nations of Ethiopia. The SNNPR is located in the southwestern part of the country and is one of the country’s nine ethnically-based regional states. Most of the people in the Keffa Zone are of Kafficho origin and speak Kafa as their first language. Like most Ethiopian citizens, the people in the Keffa Zone live a simple life.
Approximately 80% of the population in Ethiopia live in rural ares, even though urbanization has dramatically grown since the the turn of the century. Despite the fact that the country has been growing rapidly in the past few decades, nearly half of the households don’t have enough food to eat. Most of these rural families make their living through livestock and agriculture, which are exhausting jobs that require many people to help, which explains why their families are typically so large.
The average Ethiopian family usually has six or seven members, who all live in the same mud-and-thatch hut and are responsible for cultivating less than two hectares of land. Most children don’t attend school, and the ones that do rarely make it to secondary school. When they grow up, most of them will stay near their families and villages and take over responsibility for their families’ agricultural work. Unfortunately, Ethiopians are facing more than just the vicious cycle of poverty.
Considering how much of their lives depend on agriculture, it’s essential that they have land to work. Unfortunately, this has led to an incredible amount of deforestation. Estimates show that the area that was once covered by trees has been reduced from 35% to 11.9% since the start of the 20th century. This has caused animals to lose their habitats, soil erosion, and the reduction of biodiversity. It has also caused humans to be closer to wild animals, which can lead to some pretty intense confrontations.
The young girl our story is about had bigger problems than a run-in with some wild animal. The girl had been missing for a week and her community and family were looking for her everywhere. They assumed that she had been kidnapped, which wasn’t unusual when a man wanted a young girl as his wife. They refused to give up on her, though, so as soon as the police received a lead, they moved in fast.
The girl’s family was accompanied by Sergeant Wondimu Wedaju and went into the forested area on the outside of their community. There were hardly any humans out there, but they had a very good lead that this was where the young girl was being held captive. They knew they had no time to waste since the girl’s life was in serious danger. They were in no way prepared for what they would find.
When they reached their destination, there were no kidnappers to be found. Did they wait too long? Maybe their lead was wrong. They were trying to figure out what was going on when they spotted what they were looking for. There was the young girl, sitting by herself, looking unharmed. She wasn’t completely alone, though. Sitting with her were three surprising guardians. They stared in disbelief, accompanied by a little bit of fear.
Surrounding the young girl were three adult lions! It appeared that they were protecting her. The rescue party slowly approached and the lions calmly turned around and walked into the forest. “They stood guard until we found her and then they just left her like a gift,” said Sgt. Wondimu. As soon as the young girl was safe with her family, they began to put everything together.
A group of seven men kidnapped the young girl, one of which wanted to force her into marriage. As soon as the men brought her to the holding place, she began to cry. Her cries caught the attention of a lion pride and they chased the kidnappers away. They stood by the girl’s side for about a day until her family found her. Most people think it was a miracle that they didn’t attack the young girl, but there may be a simple explanation for their behavior.
“A young girl whimpering could be mistaken for the mewing sound from a lion cub, which in turn could explain why they didn’t eat her,” said wildlife expert with the rural development ministry, Stuart Williams. Plenty of people believe that what happened was impossible, but a local government official corroborated Sgt. Wondimu’s statements. Now, the attention has been turned to the men who kidnapped the young girl.
A few days had passed, but the girl was still terrified about what happened to her. She needed to be treated for the wounds the men gave her. Sgt. Wondimu said that four of the men who had taken her had been caught, but there were still three out there. Even though this girl is safe now, there are many other girls in Ethiopia who are not.
This custom, known as child bride abductions, has been practiced in Ethiopia for many centuries. Once a young girl was considered to be “of marrying age” any man could kidnap her and sexually assault her, causing her to have no choice but to marry him. At the turn of the 21st century, approximately 70% of Ethiopian marriages were because of abductions, but things are changing.
In 2003, child bride abductions were made illegal in Ethiopia, but in practice, they’ve been a lot harder to eliminate. Crimes like these can be easily prosecuted in cities, but it’s not so easy in rural communities. Different humanitarian leaders, such as Boge Gebre, have been forming groups for women to educate the public and change this disgusting custom. In the Kembata Tembaro Zone, where Gebre works, bridal abductions have been cut down more than 90%. Hopefully, this means that lions won’t have to protect little girls anymore.