Shelter from the Storm: Escaping from Gender Violence in Ethiopia

7 Diciembre 2009
Author: UNFPA
Talkwando training builds confidence of women who seek refuge at the shelter and gives them skills to defend themselves.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The safe house for victims of gender-based violence hides behind tall, grey walls in a nondescript neighbourhood of the capital. Run by Tsotawi Tekat Tekelakay Mahiber (TTTM) – the Organization Against Gender-based Violence -- is known only to the police.

Photographs are not permitted. Visitors must pass through a heavily padlocked iron gate manned by a sentry from within. Inside the compound, some children are engaged in play on the green patio, while others follow lessons taught by one of the shelter’s staff members.

Some women are busy making white ribbons for the upcoming Sixteen Days of Activism against Gender Violence. Others are minding the newly born babies in the shelter. The complex comprises offices, a health clinic, a counselling room, kitchen and dining facilities, dormitories and workshops. The fifty-bed facility is a welcoming place for women and their children, who often arrive battered and with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Providing support and protection

The safe house is based on the premise that effective work against gender-based violence can not be achieved without providing support and protection for survivors/victims of violence. Twenty-one-year-old Aster (not her real name), one of the women staying there, agrees. “The safe house has been very helpful to my children and me. It has provided us with counselling, health care and shelter,” she says. She arrived in the shelter in May, with a young child in tow and another due in a month. Her story is typical of those of many battered women in Ethiopia.

Due to her parents’ financial inability to send her to the university, Meskerem left her rural village Jimma, 350 kilometres west of Addis Ababa, at the age of 16. She headed to Addis Ababa to live with an aunt and hoped to continue her education. However, she soon met a man who deceived her into accompanying him to another town. After they started living together, she became pregnant. A second pregnancy followed in rapid succession.

Eight months into her second pregnancy, her partner’s mother and other relatives beat her up and threw her out. After spending two weeks sleeping in the streets of Addis Ababa, a good samaritan took her to the local Women’s Affairs office which, in turn, referred her to the shelter. A month later, she gave birth. The shelter helped her to press charges for assault, but she had to give up after two court visits due to the transportation costs associated with making court appearances with her young children.

Gender violence is pervasive and takes many forms

Aster considers herself one of the fortunate survivors. According to Maria Munir, the Executive Director of TTTM, the organization that runs the safe house, demand for the shelter far outstrips available capacity, due to the pervasive nature of gender-based violence in the country. At its inception four years ago, the shelter had a six-bed capacity. With assistance from UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, there are now fifty beds.

Ethiopia has one of the highest prevalence rates of both sexual and physical violence by an intimate partner. Societal abuse of young girls continues to be a problem. Besides rape and battery, the most widespread manifestations of violence against women in Ethiopia are harmful traditional practices, including female genital mutilation/cutting, child marriage, abduction as a method of forcefully contracting marriage and wife inheritance – in some places a woman is considered the property of the family into which she marries, and if her partner dies, she is expected to wed a male relative.

Legal redress is limited

Among the key measures that the Ethiopian government has adopted to combat such practices is Article 35 of the Federal Constitution, which prohibits laws, cultures and practices that oppress or cause bodily or mental harm to women.

While women have recourse to the police and the courts, societal norms and limited infrastructure inhibit many women from seeking legal redress, especially in rural areas. Social practices obstruct investigations into rape and the prosecution of the rapist. Many women are not even aware of their rights under the law.

Ethiopia lacks the necessary infrastructure to support women and children suffering from gender violence. The safe house lacks sufficient financial support for providing adequate services to victims, sufficiently protecting them and assisting with their reintegration into society. Since opening just over four years ago, it has provided shelter and services for some 450 women and teenage girls and their children, many of them born after their mother’s arrival in the home. At the time of our visit to the safe house, there were 20 newborns, most of them conceived through rape by employers or relatives.

Safe houses are a stopgap measure

Ms. Munir sees the shelter as a stopgap measure, aimed at cushioning the effects of violence on some of its most vulnerable victims. As such, the organization offers a holistic approach that includes shelter, health care, food and clothes for survivors and their children; individual and group counselling; self-defense and life skills; and professional skills training.

Aster, who is learning tailoring as a survival skill to help her when she leaves the shelter, is grateful for all the help she has been given. “Counselling has helped me a lot in controlling my anger and desire to seek revenge for what was done to me,” she says. But she is uncertain about her future. “I would like to continue with my education. But without money, I don’t know where my children and I will go to when my stay here ends.” The safe house can accommodate survivors for only three months, although some have been allowed to stay for up to eight months.

Trying to stamp out the problem

“Our ultimate salvation will come only when gender-based violence is totally stamped out in Ethiopia. For us to address the problem properly, we need to understand the magnitude of the problem; its manifestations and justification; and consequences on the individual, community and nation,” says Ms. Munir. As a result, in addition to running the safe house, TTTM has embarked on community outreach education, networking and research.

The community outreach education component targets law enforcement bodies (police and prosecutors), women’s affairs officials, health professionals, community and religious leaders and students. It focuses on creating awareness in the community about women’s rights, gender issues and traditional practices that harm women and girls.

With networking, TTTM aims to forge coordinated efforts in dealing with gender-based violence, including advocating for tougher laws. The research component investigates the causes, extent, types and consequences of gender violence in Ethiopia so as to locate gaps in laws and policies and identifty key interventions.

— George Ngwa


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