'Not a Subject You Speak About With Your Girlfriend'

In the living room of the battered women's shelter, Sarah is suspiciously scrutinizing the video monitor of the film crew for the television show "Through Our Eyes."

After several minutes of vacillation, Sarah, 28, and mother of four, decides to be filmed in full silhouette. She sits down across from the reporter Chana Maketa, and starts to talk. Her concerns about being identified are quickly supplanted by a deep resolve not to remain silent.

"What brought you here?" Maketa asks Sarah in Amharic.

Sarah, who has been at the shelter for approximately two months, offers a dry response: "The fear that my husband would murder me."

The fear is well-grounded. Every time the television news reported that an Ethiopian man had murdered his wife, her husband would say to her: "I'm going to do it, too." Or: "You're next in line." There were times when she was afraid to fall asleep.

"When did the violence toward you begin?" asks the reporter.

"Already in Ethiopia," says Sarah. "We fought all the time, and many times I wanted to split up, but he wasn't willing. He would bring in the elders of the community, whose function it is to mediate between spouses and prevent the breakup. When we wanted to immigrate to Israel, we were advised not to divorce, as that would hurt our chances to immigrate. So we stayed together, and immigrated in 2002, and the violence only got worse."

Frightening word

"Was it easy for you to come to the battered women's shelter?" asks Maketa.

"The word 'shelter' frightened me. I thought it was like a bomb shelter in a building, that I would be closed up in a dark place underground. I didn't know that it was actually a regular building."

"Through Our Eyes," which is aimed at the Ethiopian community in Amharic, addresses issues concerning society and culture. It has been broadcast on Educational TV channel for the past nine years and is said to have an 85-percent viewer rating among immigrants from Ethiopia. The program is underwritten by the ministries of absorption and education and the Joint Distribution Committee. Recently, in the wake of an increase in the incidence of murder and violence among Ethiopian families, the director-general of the Ministry of Absorption, Mirela Gal, decided to address the phenomenon by means of the program.

The statistics are indeed troubling: In 2005, 12 Israeli women were murdered by their husbands or partners, four of whom were Ethiopian. Since the start of 2006, 10 women have been murdered, two being Ethiopian. In the past three months, there have been three attempted murders of Ethiopian women by their husbands. In 2005, a total of 688 women checked into the 14 battered women's shelters in Israel. Seventy-four were Ethiopian.

"The Ministry of Absorption is providing us with the financing for 240 minutes on the air throughout the year, for the subject of family violence," says the program's editor and host, Fasil Lagasse. "We produce reports from the field, hold discussions in the studio and air drama sketches about the subject, with the intention of drawing attention to the phenomenon, providing effective tools and provoking public discourse in the community that will motivate viewers toward greater involvement, and the ability to ask for and receive assistance. The program content is prepared by an intra-agency steering committee that includes professionals from the Ethiopian community." In addition, the telephone number of a hotline with Amharic-speaking professionals, which is operated by the Ministry of Social Welfare, appears at the end of every program.

"This isn't the first time that the program has dared to raise a subject considered taboo in the Ethiopian community," states Lagasse. "We were the first who spoke openly about AIDS, when nobody else wanted to address the subject."

Maketa sits down to interview another young Ethiopian woman who is staying at the shelter. "I immigrated to Israel, two and a half years ago," relates Rachel, 30, a mother of three. "The arguments between me and my husband have, since we immigrated, turned into beatings. I was closed up in the house all the time. My husband wouldn't allow me to go outside, wouldn't give me money, and would not agree that I go to work. At a certain point, he discovered that I had begun working, and he did not let me back into the house. He shouted that I had no part in the house, and he made me stay outside all night long.

"He was always frightening me and threatening me. One day I noticed him carrying a case into the room. I watched, and saw him taking knives out of the case, wrapping them in towels and placing them in the closet. It scared me. I immediately took the children and ran away to my sister, who went with me to a social worker, thanks to whom I am here."

Maketa completes the interview, clearly upset. "That was the toughest job I've had until now," she says. "First, because it makes my skin crawl; it is hard to hear the accounts of the women who are the victims of violence. Second, because of the immense efforts I have to invest in persuading the women to be interviewed. Ethiopians say that 'your insides are as wide as the land.' This is a population that is accustomed to keeping things inside, and not telling or sharing, so women who are the victims of violence and abuse are too embarrassed to seek help."

Difficult to decipher

Maketa, 53, moved to Israel in 1990. She found work as a production assistant in the Amharic division of Israel Radio, from which she worked her way up to the job of field reporter on the program "Through Our Eyes."

"To induce the interview subjects to talk, I had to make a special trip here yesterday and tell them how important it was to throw light on this subject," she says. "I told them that I was personally very familiar with the cycle of violence, and that by placing the subject on the agenda it would be possible to help women to free themselves from this reality."

Maketa speaks openly about the physical violence she suffered in her first marriage. "I suffered from horrific violence throughout my marriage," she says. "I met my husband in Ethiopia, we fell in love, got married and had three children. I grew up in the city, and I acquired an education. I worked. He did not accept my independence, and would beat me every time I came home from work. After eight years of physical violence, I decided that was enough. One day, after he beat me, I called the police, and it ended up with a court issuing a restraining order. We divorced shortly afterward.

"I immigrated to Israel with my children, and supported them as a single mother. Today, they are adults and college graduates. Four years ago, I remarried.

"When I hear the battered women in the shelter, and I see how far I have gotten by my own devices, I feel pain for all the years during which I put up with the violence."

Maketa has also interviewed physically abusive men who are now receiving treatment, in a family violence center, and for her next program she plans to interview a woman whose husband tried to murder her and who is now hospitalized in serious condition.

She confesses to a slight sense of despair. Even after the interviews and the conversations with the experts, it is still difficult for her to understand or decipher the high domestic murder rates within the Ethiopian community.

"In Ethiopia, there were no murders within the family," she says. "For the Ethiopian community, this is a new and shocking phenomenon. In Ethiopia, women were accustomed to the man treating them like objects, and they accepted the fact that they had no rights. After their arrival in Israel, there was a change in the balance of forces. Men did not find their place in society, and they lost their family status as providers. In fact, it was the women who were able to learn the language and find work. They also learned that they had rights and that what may have been normative behavior in Ethiopia, for example, acceptance of physical violence, was not normative in a society in which the woman is equal to the man."

Many women who are victims of violence do not know there is an address to which they can apply, says Maketa.

"It isn't a subject that you speak about with your girlfriend. Which means that a lot of women still think that a ' battered women's shelter' is a bunker in which they would be imprisoned.

"They aren't aware of the fact that it is a solution that can save lives. The Ethiopian community is characterized by a cloistered nature and suspiciousness toward social welfare authorities, and this makes it difficult to provide suitable treatment to victims of violence."

Does this violence stem from the failures in the absorption of the Ethiopian community?

Maketa thinks so. "I know there are a lot of good intentions and a lot of programs, and that a lot of money is spent on the subject, but when I go out into the field, I still don't see the outcomes of all this endeavor."