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Difret: Building a Culture of Courage

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In the Amharic language, "difret" means courage. Difret is also an award-winning Ethiopian feature film based on a true story about the precedent-setting court case that outlawed the kidnapping of child brides in Ethiopia. Written and directed by Ethiopian filmmaker Zeresenay Berhane Mehari and executive produced by Angelina Jolie, the film follows Hirut, a young girl who was abducted in 1996 as she walked home from school. It also tells the story of Meaza Ashenafi, the founder of a legal aid group that took the girl's case when she decided to resist. Together they succeeded in their legal challenge to telefa, the ancient Ethiopian practice of abduction into marriage. The film about Hirut's case marks a courageous moment that opened a new and better chapter in Ethiopian history.

Difret will have its Ethiopian premiere in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia this week. Accompanying the national release is a robust public engagement campaign that supports Ethiopia's recently announced commitment to end child marriage by 2025. The Difret engagement campaign asks one simple question: what can you do as an ordinary individual to help build a culture of courage that supports and protects women and girls?

Helping audiences answer this question begins a much-needed conversation about how deeply rooted prejudicial traditions can change through acts of courage by everyday people. For this reason, we believe Difret can be more than a film: we hope it will stimulate a global social action campaign that empowers people to build a culture of courage that supports and protects women and girls. We intend to tap into the groundswell of attention from audience awards at the Sundance, Berlin, and Amsterdam FILM festivals to change harmful cultural norms like child marriage.

Here are the facts about early and forced marriage:

• Between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls will wed -- if current rates hold -- 39,000 every day (14.2 million per year): a third of all girls age 10 to 19 in the developing world.
• Of that number, about 13,000 girls who are under 15 become brides each day -- five million per year. Some are married as young as eight or nine.
• Girls who marry before age 18 are less likely to complete primary school, more likely to experience unwanted pregnancies, and are at greater risk of death or injury in childbirth.
• Childbirth complications are the leading cause of death for girls 15 to 19 in South Asia and Africa, where child marriage is most common.

These statistics paint a compelling picture. A child bride will most likely drop out of school and become isolated and a mother before she is physically or psychologically ready. This horrific practice risks her health and deprives her of any prospect of personal advancement.

Forcing a child under 18 to marry is a serious abuse of human rights under several international agreements. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that marriage should be "entered only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses." Children said to "consent" to marriage cannot fully understand what is happening to them or make informed decisions about this critical event and its consequences for their lives.

This is why there is a rallying crying to end child marriage in one generation. Changing culture and societal norm is vital to this goal. History is replete with examples of harmful traditions and gender-based discriminatory practices that are deemed locally immutable, or too difficult to change. But social entrepreneurs around the world are proving that culture does change towards a fairer, safer, and more just future. This transformation often begins by women leading the change from within. Difret tells such a story.

Of course, gender violence occurs in the United States too. For example, in 1977, in Danville, Michigan, a battered wife decided she had had enough of her husband's brutal beatings. So Frances Hughes poured gasoline around him as he slept and set him on fire. Her criminal trial received scant media coverage at the time, and the term "domestic violence" was not part of the public vocabulary, much less codified in legislation.

But less than a decade after Hughes was acquitted of murder, in 1984, her story sparked a social revolution after it became an NBC network television special called The Burning Bed, staring Farrah Fawcet, which chronicled her 12 years of abuse. The story premiered with a 36.2 percent audience share, the 17th highest-rated movie ever aired on network television. It dramatized a case of such brutal violence that Frances Hughes' experience quickly became the rallying point for a movement to change domestic violence laws.

Many leading advocates agree that it was the movie that largely changed social attitudes by raising awareness and helping to build a movement. Now, a generation later, long-time advocates celebrate the film as a turning point in the fight against domestic violence. It helped create policy change ten years later with the passage of the first Violence Against Women Act in 1994. We hope that the feature film Difret will awaken similar outrage and constructive response against the practice of child marriage, which is still a norm in many parts of the world.

Social entrepreneurs know that a key weapon in their arsenal of change is the power of truth-telling films. Popular media helps both to create and to document culture. From ancient times to today, stories have both reflected and informed social change. People learn society's norms through stories and films and can -- in the best case -- better understand standards of behavior, action, and lawful re-action. Difret is part of a filmmaking tradition that helps to inspire, instruct, and lead social change.