Ethiopia’s Hidden Victims
Sexual abuse against children is a surprisingly frequent, but unreported issue. To make it worse, most cases go unreported because of the accompanying stigma. While the level of psycho-social assistance for victims is quite low, the abused children can also suffer from depression to substance abuse issues. The names of the victims and their families have been changed to protect their identities. EBR’s Menna Asrat reports.
Recently, sexual assaults against children came to the fore of the national consciousness when reports spread throughout the country of Chaltu Abdi, a 13 year-old domestic worker in Harar, who was allegedly raped by the man for whom she worked. Following the assault she was splashed with an unidentified liquid which caused third degree burns. In a heart-breaking turn of events, she was able to tell medical and law enforcement personnel that her attacker hid her for two days before she was finally taken to hospital.
The girl eventually succumbed to her injuries, dying in an Addis Ababa hospital bed, which led to outrage among people in all corners of the country. Although no public announcements have been made about the progression of her case, the issue of minor children who have been sexually assaulted was renewed in the national consciousness.
Even though children are the most vulnerable members of any society, in many countries around the world, they also fall prey to those who are seeking weak and easy targets. In Ethiopia, the issue has not been as widely discussed as it should be, leading to many of the victims living in shame, and even becoming estranged from their families.
Bethlehem Abebe is seven years old. A shy child, she tends to open up more once she gets to know people. However, for both her and her mother, the last few years have been an arduous journey, which started with the discovery of a deep betrayal. When she was just four years old, Bethlehem was sexually abused by a family member, a maternal uncle who had offered to take care of her while her mother, Alemnesh worked to support the family.
“It was very difficult to come to terms with it,” Alemnesh, a widow, says. Even now, years later, Alemnesh is still reluctant to talk about what happened to her daughter, even with the counsellors from an NGO who meet with her and her daughter once a week. “It’s difficult to think that I won’t be able to contact him again. But it’s also hard to think that my child got hurt because of him. It’s hard for any mother.”
As she sits and watched her daughter play outside on a sunny day in Addis, Alemnesh wonders aloud about what might become of her family when her brother is released from prison in around 10 years. In a society that is a family-centric as Ethiopia, she has faced her fair share of pressure to forgive him, both from family members, and friends and neighbours, or even to avoid taking the case to law enforcement and the courts.
“I thank God that my daughter is doing better now,” she says. “Before, it was hard to get her to even speak.” But even after all this time, she is conflicted. “My family helped me raise my children,” she said. “After I lost my husband it was difficult for me to take care of them, so I relied on my family. It’s difficult to feel that I am tearing it apart.”
Bethlehem received treatment for her injuries, and medical personnel told her mother that she should make a full recovery. Of course, there are always worries about the future.
“We were told there might be a chance that she woud have reproductive problems in the future,” Alemnesh says, tearing up as she watched her daughter at play. “I just pray to God that we can find some solution to this situation.”
Bethlehem and her family are a testament to the complications and devastation that sexual assault on children can bring about. However, even though Bethlehem’s attacker was prosecuted and is in prison, thousands on children in Addis Ababa and around the country have to suffer.
According to the Addis Ababa Police Commission, there were 1,594 sexual abuses against woman, majority of whom are children, reported at Mahatma Gandhi Hospital in the past fiscal year alone. Surprisingly, only a fraction of those are prosecuted and end with the perpetrators being incarcerated. However, even when the perpetrators face punishment, the victims still have to deal with years of physical and psychological repercussions.
A study published by Jibril Jemal, a researcher at Jimma University, in the Ethiopian Journal of Health Science in 2012 found that children who have been sexually assaulted suffer from both short and long term issues as a result of having been sexually victimised. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was the most common psychological impact. Victims can also suffer from depression, anxiety, promiscuity, behavioural problems, poor self-esteem and disruptive behaviour. More concerning, the study also found that children who had been sexually victimised were at risk for clinical psychological issues, such as dissociative disorders, substance abuse issues, and eating disorders.
A more recent research paper, published in 2018 by Qingfeng Li et al, found that the prevalence of child sexual abuse was around 68.7pct in Ethiopia. Among the abuses, verbal harassment filled most part (51.4Pct), followed by sexual intercourse (18Pct), and unwelcome kissing (17.1Pct). Most of the victims are under 15 years of age and suffered from psychological problems after being abused, the study shows. This includes suicide, low degree of positive self-worth and sexual dysfunction, according to the same source. A 2017 study by UNICEF found that one in 25 girls aged 15-19 n Ethiopia had been forced to have sex.
However high or low the prevalence of sexual assault becomes the consequences for the children are extremely far reaching. One such child is Robel Girma, a 17 year old student from Addis Ababa. When he was a young teenager, he was sexually assaulted by an older boy who used to hang around his neighbourhood. He was ashamed to tell his mother, but eventually managed to get the words out. “She was very unhappy at first,” he recalls. “She was shouting and crying and yelling at me for allowing myself to get into such a position in the first place.”
The conflict with his mother continued, even after the crime had been reported to the police and the perpetrator was tried and jailed. “I think she couldn’t accept that such a thing could happen to a boy,” he says. “It was a difficult time.”
For a many years, Robel struggled with the symptoms of PTSD: he had trouble sleeping, he had flashbacks to the day that he was attacked, even in the middle of seemingly normal activities, he found himself unable to relate to the friends he had before the assault. Although he did receive some counselling, for him, the ordeal is far from over.
“I still have nightmares,” he says. “I have times when I want to kill myself. Once I even tried. But I managed to stay alive. I still struggle with being around people. Some of them seem to think that it was my fault that it happened, that maybe I did something. But since it has been so long, it seems to be getting better.”
Robel is an illustration of the problem that faces many child victims of sexual crimes. There are very few standardised resources that can help address their needs once their cases are out of the court system. That is, if the case gets to the court system in the first place.
Out of the cases of sexual abuse and assault against children, only a fraction is reported to the relevant authorities. According to a legal expert with over 20 years in the area of child protection, the legal system is equipped to deal with the prosecution of people who sexually attack children, but the fate of the victims afterwards remains up in the air.
“The legal system sets limits and guidelines for how to sentence someone who has sexually assaulted a child,” he explains. “In a court room situation, if the judge decides that he or she has to hear from the victim, there are rooms where the child can testify over a video chat, and they can wait for their turn in rooms equipped to make children comfortable. In cases where the child has been raped, they can explain what happened with the use of dolls.”
Indeed there are institutions like the Addis Ababa Police Commission Child Crimes Unit and divisions of hospitals which are trained and equipped to handle cases where children are the victim, and to treat their physical issues. The problem is what happens after the testimony and the sentencing, says the expert.
“Especially in cases where family members are the perpetrators, there are no safeguards for the children in place on the governmental level. What happens if the person is released and wants to return to the family home? What happens if the child is in a situation where another family member or caregiver has pressured them not to tell the authorities about what happened? There is no one to assess whether the child is returning to a safe environment.”
In countries such as the other countries, there are registries to keep track of offenders, and if they go against the court’s rulings, the child can be removed and placed in a foster home, or in an institution that is set up for that purpose. “In Ethiopia, there is nothing like that.”
This is the issue that haunts parents like Alemnesh. For many women like herself, who have to raise their children on their own, support from family members is paramount. For some, keeping themselves and their children alive can even trump keeping their children apart from those who may be sexual predators.
However, with proper support and counselling, there is hope for the children who have to endure this terrible ordeal. “I definitely see myself getting better,” explains Robel. “I’m doing better with my studies than I was before, and my mother and I are getting along better. I think I might even want to become a doctor in the future, to help people like me.”.
7th Year • Oct.16 – Nov. 15 2018 • No. 67