Imagine you are a woman from a village under attack in Ethiopia’s civil war. You’ve lost communication with your husband and your children are crying for food but there is none. You try to leave for the safety of another village, but on the way, you are accosted, brutalized and subjected to sexual violence. You’re not sure who to trust anymore, and what little strength you had has now been sapped.
You feel broken, helpless, anxious, lacking in basic necessities, and most of all, you are starving.
This is how many women and their children arrive at safe houses supported by Women for Women International (WfWI) through our Conflict Response Fund in Ethiopia.
Safe Houses are an essential refuge for women survivors of war and today, in Ethiopia, there has never been a greater need for them.
Since 2022, the country has been embroiled in a brutal civil war. Rebels from the northern region of Tigray have pushed back against the Ethiopian government which has bombed cities and villages and left tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people dead. A government blockade in the Tigray region has cordoned off access to food, medicine, electricity and telecommunications, leaving 17 million people in need of serious assistance. Millions have been displaced. There is evidence of war crimes on all sides, including widespread sexual violence.
Amid such chaos, United Nations experts have reported that women and girls in the Tigray, Afar and Amhar regions are increasingly vulnerable to abduction and trafficking for sexual exploitation as they flee the conflict.
Fortunately, the first formal peace talks between the Ethiopian army and forces from Tigray commenced on Oct. 25, 2022 in South Africa and are expected to last six days.
Supported by our Conflict Response Fund since October 2021, WfWI has partnered with Mums for Mums to provide survivors in Mekelle and Adigrat, Tigray with safe houses, counseling services, and one-stop centers. Additionally, the program supports many children and other family members and drives awareness of gender-based violence in communities.
WfWI also partners with two other organizations on the ground in Ethiopia, providing safe houses for women fleeing violence and conflict.
At our sponsored safe house in Bahir Dar in northern Ethiopia, a total of 105 participants, including adult sexual violence survivors and children, received support between June and August 2022. Under the auspices of the Agar Ethiopia Charitable Society (Agar Ethiopia), the safe house helps traumatized women and children take shelter temporarily in a free and secure place, along with three meals a day and medical and psychological assessments that include local hospital referrals.
Besides individual psychiatric counseling, survivors can utilize various arts therapies, handcrafts, and indoor games to help them revive, recover from their trauma and begin to heal.
WfWI also partners with the Association for Women's Sanctuary and Development (AWSAD), a pioneer organization in recovery and rehabilitation services for women survivors. In its safe home in Dessie in north-central Ethiopia, participants are provided accommodations as well as food and clothing, plus a variety of modern psychological services customized to each individual. Basic literary training is also available as well as courses in self-defense. The safe house also enables survivors to access pathways of justice and helps them resolve their legal cases.
At these safe houses for women, children are also a major focus.
Lense Kassahun, AWSAD program coordinator, explains: “During the conflict, children may have watched while their mother or sister were raped by gangs. Such traumatized children show symptoms of hypersexuality, fear and aggression and they may have already talked about the incident with siblings or friends. Using play therapies for those under 13 and individual and group counseling for those over 14, our safe house provides them the environment to process and recover safely.”
Agar Ethiopia also provides family tracing and reunification - one of the greatest losses experienced during war. Between June and August 2022, up to 25 rehabilitated survivors of violence received the benefits.
“The response at our safe house in Bahir Dar has been amazing,” says Mahlet Tadele, M&E Officer of Agar Ethiopia. “We’ve seen women rise up from their emotional wounds, face their fears and develop more self-confidence and positivity about themselves and their connection to the world.”
While there are other NGOs doing similar work, what sets these safe houses apart is how they prepare women for economic self-sufficiency through vocational training. During their stay at the Dessie safe house, participants can take advantage of food preparation training conducted by a local chef. In Bahir Dar, vocational training also includes barbering, hairdressing and female beautification.
In both locations, conferences and community discussions are being held with police authorities, along with local political, legal and spiritual leaders, to discuss how GBV can be prevented and how to create a safer environment for women and girls. As a result, survivors are gaining a better understanding about how to protect themselves and how and where to report GBV cases.
Above all, survivors are learning that they are not alone, that healing is possible, and that they can become active participants in a future where they, their families, and their fellow citizens can feel safe and thrive.
Even in war.