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Leaders say traditional cultural practices led to woman's death in Australia
On April 8 2014, 25 year old Wubanchi Asfaw died from multiple stab wounds in Auburn, NSW.
Her husband, Solomon Hailu Jenbare was sentenced on September 16th for manslaughter with 9 years of prison and a 5 year non-parole period.
In sentencing Jenbare, Justice L McCallum said she had taken into account Jenbare’s mental health issues which doctors say are a consequence of being subjected to torture in Ethiopia, before arriving in Australia.
Wubanchi Asfaw’s death shocked Australia’s Ethiopian community – but senior community figures and social workers have told SBS Radio warning signs that something was seriously wrong in the couple’s relationship were obvious. They say Wubanchi's death uncovers a dilemma between traditional marriage mediation and Australian law in dealing with domestic violence.
According to court transcripts - Just before midnight on April 8, 2014 Solomon Jenbare stabbed his wife Wubanchi Asfaw multiple times with a kitchen knife. The young mother fled into the street outside their home and called out to neighbours for help. At the hospital, she was announced dead on arrival.
Months before her death, Wubanchi had sought legal advice, claiming her husband had been violent towards her. Four different sources told SBS that she had presented to the Police at least two complaints against Jenbare, scared of the level of violence and threats. These actions were not followed by an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) or conviction.
Eventually however, she chose to deal with the issue through traditional mediation organised by members of the Ethiopian community in Australia.
In each of the three mediation agreements Wubanchi agreed to go back and live with Hailu Jenbare who promised to be a good husband.
Seblework Tadesse is an Ethiopian social worker based in Brisbane who has followed the case closely. She said in many cases, women don’t feel they have an option to say "no" to the traditional mediation resolution.
"Somehow you can't say "no" to the system, because it's saying "no" to the community. (...) and if she said "no", the community would be looking at her as if she is the one who is making her marriage not working."
Ethiopian community Elder and Multicultural Community Liaison for the NSW Police, Mr. Assefa Bekele, told SBS Radio the leaders who sent Wubanchi back home "were wrong".
"I'm sorry, they were wrong. They were wrong. If they sent [her] back, those who sent her back, they were wrong. They have lack of information how human rights is protected. (...) These leaders, Church leaders or whoever they are, they have to come out and learn."
Mr. Bekele says community leaders have a role to play in educating people about domestic violence cases but that as soon as an incident of violence occurs it should become a police matter.
"Community leaders, including myself, community elders, Church leaders, can educate the community about relationships and respect (...) but once an incident comes up, they have no role to play. The law needs to take action."
Seblework Amare is a domestic violence survivor in Australia. Born in Ethiopia, Seblework says community and religious leaders' advice is highly respected and followed in Ethiopia, but in Australia, the mediation model doesn't work.
She suggests female victims of domestic violence should seek help from professionals outside of the community.
Ms. Amare told SBS that Ethiopian women should speak out and not be afraid of losing the respect of families and friends or being excluded from the community:
"I was hiding the problem (...) if other people heard of my problem, I might lose my relationship, I might lose respect."
The role religious leaders play in advising women in cases of domestic violence has now come under scrutiny from the NSW religious bodies.
In 2014 the NSW Ecumenical Council, which represents a number of Churches including the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, created a commission on family violence to educate priests and the community.
General Secretary of the Council, Father Shenoda Mansour, thinks that domestic violence needs to be dealt with by professionals and the police, not religious leaders.
He says many “don't have all the skills" necessary.
Speaking to SBS Radio, Father Mansour says that he has told religious leaders within the NSW Ecumenical Council that their prime responsibility is to keep families safe.
"Your prime responsibility is to keep that family safe. We don't want to bury another woman. We don't want to have a family with that trauma for life. If they can't live together, well, separate."
Wubanchi's mother and brother moved to Australia when she died
Wubanchi's mother and brother arrived in Australia with almost no English language skills. They said to SBS that the Department of Housing gave them two weeks to vacate the housing commission apartment that had initially been allocated to Mr. Jenbare. Since then a community member and the Red Cross have been helping them.
Wubanchi's mother, Asnaku Kebede Eshete, told SBS Radio she never thought her daughter's husband had mental issues. Otherwise, she would not have allowed her daughter to marry him.
Tsegaye Yohanes Asfaw is Wubanchi's brother. He says that his sister was alone and no one helped her when she began to speak up about what was going on at home.
Wubanchi's mother told SBS Radio that a number of friends and people within the community had told her that Jenbare had threatened to kill her daughter. She says Wubanchi recorded the offender saying "I'll kill you" and played the recording to her friends.
In her sentence, the judge said the offender expressed pain and remorse when he knew of the death of his wife and has shown “good character for a period of 49 years”.
Judge L McCallum also paid her respects to the family and acknowledged their grief and sadness.
Jenbare will be eligible for parole in April 2019 with time already already served.
Is community based mediation new to the Ethiopian community?
Ethiopian communities have a traditional protection system in place.
Respected elders or religious leaders, can intervene if a husband turns violent. They can remove the wife and children to a safe location and try to mediate between the husband and wife.
The traditional role that religious leaders and elders played in Ethiopia, has changed in Australia where communities are often more dispersed, individuals and families live far from each other and people tend to not get involved in other people’s business.
Brisbane based social worker, Seblework Tadesse thinks the traditional ways to protect women and children from domestic violence has a place for the Ethiopian community in Australia.
However, she says that while some in the community believe the traditional way of managing domestic violence cases is working well, others believe that problems with domestic violence in the Ethiopian-Australia community stem from homeland attitudes.
NSW Police Multicultural Community Liaison, Mr. Assefa Bekele, disagrees with applying the traditional ways to protect women and children from violence. He thinks that there is a large gap between Ethiopian and Australian attitudes towards domestic violence and how to deal with it.
- National domestic violence helpline: 1800 737 732 or 1800RESPECT.
- In an emergency call triple-zero.
Ethiopian Community Elder, based in Sydney.
He is also the Multicultural Community Liaison Officer, NSW Police Force.
Father Shenoda Mansour
Seblework Tadesse is a social worker of Ethiopian origin.
Based in Brisbane, she is also an activist against domestic violence and works to educate the community in this matter.
Domestic Violence survivor. Living in Sydney, born in Ethiopia.