Supporting survivors of sexual assault in Ethiopia, and working to stop violence before it starts

Around the world, 6 per cent of women report having survived sexual assault by someone other than a partner

Ayantu* was 14 when she was betrayed by someone society had taught her to trust.

One night in February 2021, the teenager from the town of Bule Hora in southern Ethiopia, left her home following a heated argument with her family. Seeking out a relative at a local government office where they worked, Ayantu instead found herself stranded and alone, as her relative was not there. 

With dusk approaching, police officers posted at the building offered her a place to stay inside the compound. Ayantu was grateful for their kindness – until, in the middle of the night, one of the officers entered her room and sexually assaulted her.

Around the world, 6 per cent of women report having survived sexual assault by someone other than a partner. This figure likely underestimates the true scope of these violations, however, given the role stigma and fear of retaliation play in preventing survivors from reporting crimes.

Research shows, for instance, that across 44 countries, half of survivors of physical or sexual violence never told anyone about the problem or sought help.

When Ayantu first returned home, traumatized and unsure what to do, she did not mention her attack. She told family members she had spent the night sleeping in the woods.

“I was terrified and in pain. I felt it was all my fault – that if I hadn’t left home this wouldn’t have happened to me. The guilt and shame were overwhelming,” she said.

Supporting survivors

Many survivors choose not to report crimes of sexual violence due to victim-blaming and stigma, often perpetuated by authorities, health workers, and even friends and family. 

Thankfully, this was not the case for Ayantu. When the women in her household noticed her bruises and bloodstained clothing, they approached her with concern – and offered their immediate support after she told them what happened.

Ayantu’s family accompanied her to the Kebele administration office to report the sexual assault. The offending officer was quickly arrested and brought in for questioning, and admitted to committing the crime.

Meanwhile, police referred Ayantu to the Bule Hora teaching hospital’s gender-based violence health facility, also known as a “one-stop centre”. The UNFPA-supported facility offers survivors of gender-based violence a safe space where they can access medical attention, psychosocial support and sexual and reproductive health care. 

All staff there have been trained in gender-based violence case management, ensuring survivors like Ayantu are not re-traumatized or blamed for their attacks. It’s also a place where police, public prosecutors, health-care providers, and social workers can come together to collaborate on cases – and survivors can access what they need.

“The one-stop centre is fully equipped and integrated with the hospital as well as the justice department. We have the police and the public prosecutor who serve survivors sitting full-time at the centre,” said Dr. Tariku Gari, the head of the one-stop centre. “This has resulted in a sense of relief for the girls and the women that there will be justice.”

Taking charge of her future

With support from her family and dedicated professionals at the Bule Hora health centre and her offender in police custody awaiting trial, Ayantu has started rebuilding her life. “I am going back to school,” she said.

As her journey towards recovery continues, others in her community have taken steps to prevent gender-based violence before it happens. 

Twice a week, the Her Space programme at Bule Hora elementary school gathers 48 girls aged 11 to 14 for discussions and information sessions on sexual and reproductive health, gender equality and women’s empowerment. The programme, funded by the Republic of Korea, aims to support participants in protecting themselves from discrimination, violence and exploitation, and exercising their rights and choices.

“Being a teacher for 30 years, I can say that this programme has been the most impactful in empowering girls to have a voice and plan their future,” said Her Space leader and Bule Hora school teacher Misrak Takele.

As one participant, Hana, 14, said: ”We learned that it’s up to us to influence society and our families to treat us as valuable members and believe in us”.

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