Exclusive Q&A With Human Rights Lawyer Meaza Ashenafi
Oct 21, 2015
Meaza Ashenafi is a leading human rights advocate whose passion for equality and activism has propelled her into the global spotlight.
A native of Ethiopia, Ashenafi is the founder and the first executive director of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, and led efforts to create the first women's bank in Ethiopia, Enat Bank, which opened in 2011. She currently chairs its board of directors.
Most recently, Ashenafi's story was featured in the award-winning drama, "DIFRET," based on the true story of a young Ethiopian girl, Hirut, who was abducted by her would-be husband who she accidentally murders. Ashenafi stepped in and exonerated Hirut, helping to rewrite Ethiopian law with the verdict as part of her work with the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association.
Learn more about "DIFRET" by watching the video above featuring an interview with the film's producer, Mehret Mandefro, and director, Zerenesay Berhane Mehari, who were at AOL headquarters in New York City on Tuesday for a live discussion.
"DIFRET" will be released in select theaters on Friday. A special theatrical screening will take place at New York City's Lincoln Plaza, with writer and director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, producer Mehret Mandefro, and real-life subjects Meaza Ashenafi and Aberash Bekele.
Read below for MAKERS' exclusive Q&A with Ashenafi.
Q: Talk to us a little bit about your background, and how you became a human rights lawyer.
A: I come from rural Ethiopia. The first time I came to a big city was when I joined the university. When it comes to my interest in women's issues, it was really from the beginning. It was my love. After I, along with my friends, established the Women Lawyers Association in 1994, I discovered myself. It became my passion. I have been doing that for the past 25 years.
Q: Describe what life is like for Ethiopian women. And how do their lives compare to that of women in other African countries?
A: There are changes in the incremental progress of Ethiopian women, for example the enrollment in primary education, wage employment, and participation in politics, like in the parliament. But the attitude and the belief that women are inferior to men is pretty much there. In a nutshell, there is progress, but there are huge challenges.
As for women in other African countries, there are many common issues, but they're very specific to different countries. For example, the issue of child marriage. They practice this in Guinea, Nigeria, Malawi, Niger, in the Congo — but in other parts of Africa, they do not have these problems. There are common thread problems, but also specific challenges.
Q: You've had a remarkable career in law. What was it about Hirut's case that inspired you to take it on?
A: This happened when we started the organization — we were pretty much new, and we had launched a lot of public education programs. When I heard about this case on the radio — about this 14-year-old girl — I knew immediately that this was going to translate into a conversation around child abduction.
Q: What has been your most proud accomplish so far in your career?
A: I'm so happy to be the Founding Executive Director of the Women Lawyers Association, where I've been for 8 years, because we have put women's issues on the national agenda. But personally also, I have to say I'm proud to have led a group of women in business to establish the first Women's Bank in Ethiopia that offers financial services to women.
Q: "DIFRET" is an incredible film, and more importantly, it captures an incredible story. How were you approached to share your story on film?
A: The director, Zerenesay Berhane Mehari, met my brother. They are friends. My brother shared my work with him and mentioned this particular case with Hirut. Zerenesay got very excited and I remember he came to my apartment with all this information about me that he had printed out.
Q: What do you hope people take away from "DIFRET"?
A: I think it's about change. I think this film will challenge people, hopefully, to do something about an issue that is closest to their heart. I remember when the movie was screened in Holland, a guy came to me after he saw it said, "I saw your film, and I want to kill someone." I said, "No, no, no! Don't do that. But just make any contribution you can to stop child marriage." This is a global issue and we are not taking enough action. So I am hoping that this film is a call to action, and that people will take this issue seriously and will contribute. I believe it will challenge us toward action.
Q: Here at MAKERS, we highlight empowering women who are trailblazers and groundbreakers who dare to lead. Who, in your sphere, do you consider to be a MAKER?
A: Hillary Clinton. She's a big force and I really respect her commitment on issues about women's rights. It's going to have great symbolic value if the next president of the United States is a woman.
Q: Lastly, if you could give your 15-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Don't accept the status quo. You should believe that you can make a difference and that you can change the situation. Don't accept everything as it comes — that's my message.
Q: Any examples when you wish you had taken this advice and maybe didn't?
A: I do not regret anything when it comes to not accepting the status quo. There is one scene in the movie when I am talking to the young girl about my own experience. When I was 15, I was arrested once because I refused to cook for a group of boys. We were assigned to fieldwork and they expected me to cook, and I didn't. They were not very pleased with that and I was in prison.
Q: Anything else you'd like to share with us here at MAKERS?
A: When I think about women's rights and gender equality and the origin of all of this, I think of how women are capable and society should help women understand their potential. I think we have to have a broader conversation, and we need to involve men in this movement — I can't emphasize that enough.