Adolescent girls’ agency: thoughts on the film Difret

Article Date

12 November 2015

Article Author

Rachel Clement

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

I’ve worked with young men and women on issues affecting youth my whole career. Since I started working at ICRW, my primary focus has been on child marriage, which overlaps with many of the core things I care about: ensuring that adolescents have agency to make their own choices about their lives, including decisions regarding education, health, and relationships.

Last week, I had the opportunity to watch Difret, a film based on real events, involving a girl who was kidnapped for marriage and, in an act of self-defense, killed her abductor, as well as the legal battle that followed. The protagonist Hirut, who is based on the life and experiences of 14 year-old Aberash Bekele, is not the only face of child marriage because there is no one face of child marriage. Hirut’s case is extreme, both because most married children are not abducted, but also because of the difficult choice she made to end someone else’s life to ensure her own safety.

Child marriage occurs in every country and throughout every culture around the world, regardless of religion. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 700 million women and girls alive today were married before they turned 18 in almost every country in the world. More than a story about child marriage, however, I was struck by the degree to which the events of the movie happen to the main character, be they cultural or legal, and how little consultation or control she is given over her own life.

Hirut exercises perhaps her one moment of free choice in the film, in what can only be described as a flight or fight response. Hirut escapes the hut where she is being held, is chased by her captors, and uses her captor’s gun against them, killing the man who abducted her.  In that instant, Hirut becomes the center of a landmark case outlawing the practice of t’elefa, or bridenapping, but throughout the proceedings, she has little choice in her own life or how her story is used. Hirut didn’t get to choose whether she was kidnapped or raped, she didn’t get to choose to be part of historic legal proceedings. She didn’t even get to choose where she lived either during the trial or afterwards. Although the case itself may have been seen as a fight against an oppressive system that disempowers girls, Hirut herself was not consulted in whether the legal battle was one she wanted to fight. Even though she ultimately prevailed against the men who kidnapped her, the film shows Hirut crying as she leaves court, fearing that her sister will face a similar fate, and knowing that she can never return home to her village, her home, or her family. In fact, Dr. Mandefro said that although she is now involved in the film, Aberash – the real-life Hirut –actually had to leave Ethiopia for a time, and legally changed her name, and that even now when she is present for showings of the film in Ethiopia, protection is required to keep her safe. Hirut’s fight did help countless others, including her own younger sister, who was taken out of school during the trial for her safety, was able to later continue her education, avoid early marriage, and is now a nurse.

Difret gives a voice to a global problem that far too many girls face worldwide: early and forced marriage. Globally, too many girls are married before their bodies and minds are ready for marriage, childbearing, or childcare, but are forced into marriage as a result of deep-seated discrimination, which often values women only as wives and mothers. And, perhaps most importantly, too many bystanders allow others to make these important decisions for girls.

Difret panel

Dr. Mehret Mandefro, producer and writer for the film, participated in a panel after Difret’s screening, explaining that while “difret” translates from Amharic to mean roughly “courage” or “to dare,” it also has a common double meaning, which translates to“the state of being violated.” The film demonstrates just how hard it is for adolescent girls to dare to make choices about their own lives, and the many ways—physically and metaphorically—that they are violated when attempting to exercise that agency.

The power of the film lies in how realistically it shows the life of an adolescent girl, regardless of her culture. Parents, and societies, make choices for girls regarding their education, health, safety, and economic opportunities. Too many adolescent girls are unable to make real choices about their own lives, and the statistics are overwhelming as to what impact that has globally: every two seconds a girl under 18 is married somewhere in the world, and until recently, the number one cause of death for adolescent girls was child birth. Due to huge gains in maternal care, those rates have slowed, and yet the new leading form of death is almost more tragic: suicide and self harm. Child brides are particularly susceptible to early and unwanted sex, pregnancy, violence, and social isolation, all of which can contribute to suicide. Reading about all of these numbers in research and policy briefs is powerful.  That said, even those who are devoted to creating solid policy initiatives to prevent child marriage , such as ICRW’s Senior Policy Manager Lyric Thompson, who was also a panelist after the film, have admitted that film has a power that no policy brief alone can to connect with people and show the human side of child marriage.

Difret is a great opportunity to build awareness around this human rights violation, but it will take more than a film to change culture. Child marriage has historically been an issue largely unaddressed by the global community and global policies, but thanks in part to U.S. leadership, recent actions have been taken to help the Hiruts of the world.  Congress passed, and President Obama signed into law, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) in 2013. And just last month, USAID’s released their Child, Early, and Forced Marriage Resource Guide, giving the agency strategies and indicators for reporting on the issue in all programs:  from food security to education. Both of these actions are important steps to better addressing child marriage, but we can still do more.

The good news is you don’t have to be a filmmaker or government official to make a difference. See the film Difret, being shown throughout the United States and for at least the next two weeks in DC. One thing you can do right now is to sign this petition, urging the U.S. government to use its full force to protect and empower the world’s girls and end child marriage once and for all. All it takes is a few seconds to let the government know we need to do more to integrate and enforce policies designed to end child marriage in countries where the problem is most prevalent, implement programs that are proven to work to prevent child marriage, and to respond to the unique needs of girls who were married young, as we continue to fight this human rights violation.