In this deeply patriarchal society, violence against women and girls is widely practiced and takes many forms
by Kelly Mitchell-Clark
Ethiopian safe house provides refuge to survivors of gender-based violence
n Ethiopia, as is true in most of the world, women and girls face enormous social, economic and political obstacles, and the gender-based violence (GBV) they are forced to endure both stems from and reinforces their subordinate status.
In this deeply patriarchal society, violence against women and girls is widely practiced and takes many forms, including rape, domestic violence, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), sexual harassment, marriage by abduction and early marriage. Such acts of brutality are generally not viewed as human rights violations, and survivors are expected to suffer in silence.Hurrican Katrina hit, Crescent House, a shelter for domestic violence victims in New Orleans, operated much like hundreds of others across the country. Then the world turned upside down for both staff and those who depended on them.
Violence against women and girls that occurs in the family is usually tolerated and even condoned as an unquestionable cultural practice. Survivors who muster the courage to protest their victimization most often face ridicule, a lack of concern, and few options for protecting themselves or getting help.
While more research is needed on the prevalence and extent of GBV in Ethiopia, statistics currently available indicate:
- 1. Forty-nine percent (49 percent) of Ethiopian women who have been in domestic partnerships have experienced physical abuse by a partner at some point in their lives and 29 percent during the past 12 months, according to findings published in 2005 by the World Health Organization’s Multi-Country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women.
- 2. Fifty-nine percent (59 percent) of these Ethiopian women experienced sexual violence at some point, and 44 percent during the past 12 months, also according to the 2005 World Health Organization (WHO) report.
- 3. Three in four women age 15-49 have undergone FGM, according to findings from Ethiopia’s 2005 Demographic and Health Survey.
- 4. Fifty-nine percent (59 percent) of rural girls and 22.6 percent of urban girls are married before age 18, reports the Population Council. Of these, only 14.9 percent wanted to get married, only 15.3 percent knew about the marriage beforehand, and only 19.6 percent consented to the union.
- 5. Eight in 10 women believe there are some situations in which a husband is justified in beating his wife, according to the Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey.
Emerging anti-violence movement
Despite these challenges, an emerging women’s anti-violence movement is providing critically-needed services to survivors and their children; advocating for expanded legal protections for women; and working to change cultural and social norms so that GBV becomes unacceptable and, therefore, less likely to occur.
One of the leading organizations in this social change effort is Tsotawi Teqat Tekelakay Mahber (“Organization against Gender-Based Violence” in the national Amharic language), which was established in 2003 following a mobilization of women’s rights activists who were concerned about increasing numbers of rape, abduction and physical abuse cases against women and children.
The activists were particularly troubled by the public’s refusal to acknowledge and condemn these acts of violence. Based in Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa, Tsotawi Teqat Tekelakay Mahber (TTTM) employs a human rights framework in its efforts to create a society that is gender-equitable and violence-free. In January 2006, TTTM opened Adanech’s Safe House, the first facility in Ethiopia to offer comprehensive support and services to women and girls fleeing abuse.
Like battered women’s shelters in the United States, Adanech’s Safe House works to rehabilitate and empower GBV survivors by providing temporary shelter, psycho-social support, job skills training, and access to medical care and other essential services.
The women and teenage girls – some as young as 13 – who find refuge at the safe house are poor, lack support from family or friends, and have experienced repeated and/or severe violence. They arrive with little more than the ragged clothes on their backs, usually hungry and unwashed. Some are sick from HIV or in pain from severe physical abuse.
Most safe house residents are from Ethiopia’s vast countryside (85 percent of the population is rural) and come to Addis Ababa in search of better opportunities or to escape violence. Instead, far too many end up as poorly-paid, live-in housekeepers and cooks who are vulnerable to sexual and other violence by their employers and other men.
A refuge for women with nowhere to go
A common scenario is that after being raped, the woman or girl becomes pregnant and is subsequently thrown out of her employer’s home with no where to go, having no family or friends, and sometimes not even speaking the language used in Addis Ababa. The fortunate ones find out about TTTM after seeking help from the Addis Ababa Women’s Affairs Office, one of the women’s rights organizations, or the local police. The even luckier ones are admitted to TTTM, where they live from three to up to six months, depending on their circumstances.
Since opening just over two years ago, the safe house has provided shelter and services for 131 women and teenage girls and their 80 children, 32 of whom were born after their mothers arrived at the safe house. The house has already outgrown its 20 bunk beds that the mothers share with their children, and 14 more beds will soon be added. In addition to providing shelter, TTTM offers non-residential services for survivors through a Drop-In Center, carries out intensive community education, and conducts research to inform program development.
I first learned of TTTM’s work in 2005 after moving to Addis Ababa in January of that year. I met Dr. Konjit Fekade, one of TTTM’s founders, when I joined a group of women who were organizing Ethiopia’s second V-Day performance. After learning of TTTM’s plans to open the safe house and meeting Maria Munir, the dedicated and tireless member who would become its director, I was eager to support the organization’s efforts in any way possible. As a volunteer, I have provided technical advice and support on program development, organizational capacity-building and fundraising.
From the outside, Adanech’s Safe House appears no different from the other well-kept, cheerfully-decorated houses in its middle-class Addis Ababa neighborhood. Women talk and laugh among themselves as they crochet sweaters and doilies while their children play noisily beside a blooming flower garden. The residents’ pleasant demeanor gives no indication that, like guests who have overstayed their welcome their personal memories of violence and pain refuse to leave. But ask the right questions and one will hear terrible accounts of women’s vaginas burned with heated axes; of 13-year-old girls raped and impregnated by men in their 30s and 40s; of young women trafficked to faraway towns by brokers, denied salaries and raped; and of women infected with HIV by husbands who beat and abandon them after the women’s status became known.
Maria and the 14 other TTTM staff remain strong in the face of these crimes against humanity, refusing to let them overshadow the growth, rebuilding, reclamation and emancipation that take place at TTTM minute by minute, day by day. “No matter how terrible their story is, I cannot cry,” says Maria. “If I cry then they will feel their situation is hopeless.” A photo album on a nearby table documents the profound transformations the women and girls have undergone with help from TTTM.
“When they come to the safe house, many want to commit suicide,” says Maria, reflecting on how the facility changes the residents’ lives. “They are hopeless and all alone and feel no one cares. They think that they caused the problem.” But at the safe house, “there’s someone to listen, someone who’s concerned. And they think, ‘I am somebody and I have a future!’”