Safe Houses

Safe Houses Offer Refuge, Community for Female Abuse Victims

By some estimates, 70Pct of women experience abuse in their lifetime. The ordeal may leave some women and their children traumatised and feeling isolated, which can lead to long-term physical and mental anguish. Safe houses, also known as sanctuaries, were designed to provide these women and their children a safe place to receive shelter, food and counselling services to help them recover from the trauma they’ve experienced. EBR’s Meseret Mamo visited two sanctuaries and spoke with stakeholders to understand how the centres work to help women and children abuse survivors.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, February 17, 2016, Bayush Aseffa (name changed upon her request), 18, was talking with friends while carrying her six-month-old child in her arms. She and the other women, many of whom were also carrying children of their own, reside in one of the many sanctuaries, also known as safe houses, found in Ethiopia that were established to house and protect abused women.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines abuse as the “intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against…another person…resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.” Bayush came to the safe house because she was raped and became pregnant by a person who lives in the neighbourhood where she worked as a housemaid. Her journey to find refuge was coincidental. The sanctuary, operated by the Addis Ababa Women Association, found her when she was about to deliver her child and had nowhere to go.
These safe houses function to protect abused women, offering them a safe place to stay temporarily where their secrecy is maintained. Just like Bayush, there are several women and children who reside in this particular facility, all of whom were abused by their husband, partner, a family member or a stranger.
The sanctuary in which Bayush resides provides food, clothing and lodging, as well as psychological counselling to victims. Unless victims are granted permission to attend self-help trainings, court procedures or to visit health centres, they are not allowed to leave the compound until they get discharged.
A 2015 study published in the medical journal Reproductive Health demonstrates that these spaces are particularly important in Ethiopia, where women face “relatively high” rates of physical and sexual abuse. In fact, they cite a WHO study that found 71Pct of women in rural Ethiopia – a particularly vulnerable demographic – face some form of domestic violence.
According to the researchers, the physical and sexual abuse facing women and children severely hinder development goals. This is because sexual and physical abuse are linked to a “wide range of…health issues such as sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, miscarriages, risky sexual behaviour” and mental and psychological issues. These particular outcomes can adversely affect a person’s abilities to function in society, including engaging in work or receiving formal education. What’s more, the studies note that women living in poverty are most likely to be subject to some form of abuse in their lifetime and often have the fewest resources at their disposal to cope with its effects.
Shelters seek to remedy the larger issues confronting the survivors of abuse, especially those who don’t have the means to support themselves. It might seem confusing and unjustified to house victims of sexual violence together, separated from the rest of society. However, individuals close to the issue say that the importance of safe houses for abused women and children are immense.
“This is not segregation or confinement, but a place to get peace and learn to go on with life and reintegrate with the society that caused them harm,” argues Wesenyelesh Admasu, Women, Children and Youth Affairs Coordinator at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). “They need space free of violence and an appropriate environment for therapy.”
Advocates argue that these safe spaces offer a number of benefits to women and children who’ve confronted physical abuse. The first is housing: In Ethiopia, it can be difficult for victims like Bayush, who work meagre jobs and don’t have stable housing, to find a safe place to stay after they’ve experienced traumatic events. Another important service provided at these facilities is support for the survivors of violent acts and sexual abuse, which can cause mental and emotional distress. This is why psychological counselling is part of the services provided in many sanctuaries around the world.
The MoJ itself has psychological counsellors in every district in Addis Ababa to protect victims and help them cope with the effects of the abuse they’ve experienced – and to encourage them to tell the whole truth to the police without fear.
Without these support systems, evidence suggests abuse victims can suffer long-term trauma, especially young women and children. According to a study conducted by the WHO, children who’ve dealt with some form of abuse may develop long-term behaviours that could adversely affect their well being: “Generally, maltreated children show less self-confidence, exuberant enjoyment of life and hope for the future. These consequences may continue into adulthood and reduce the person’s quality of life. Risk-taking behaviour also leads to far-reaching physical and psychological ill effects, sometimes resulting in early death or suicide.”
Abeba Tadesse, a counsellor at Association of Women’s Sanctuary Development (AWSAD), agrees with the report’s assessment. “Women and children show a great psychological disturbance when they first come to the shelter,” she says. “For the first three or four days they don’t talk or integrate with other victims, and prefer to be isolated; some also might try to commit suicide. It is only after a minimum of 12 sessions that they get calm.”
Counsellors also stress that dissociation is another feature most victims exhibit. They tend to isolate themselves from the society because they confront discrimination, misunderstanding and feeling guilty about their circumstance. This sense of dislocation may be especially problematic for children who’ve experienced or witnessed abuse, a demographic that has a higher likelihood of entering abusive relationships or becoming abusive themselves, according to the WHO report.
One way to thwart the cyclical nature of abuse is to “[provide] support and services to children and families in need at different stages in the child’s development.” This can include counselling or therapy – openly dealing with the issues that arise from experiencing a traumatic event. Counsellors say that being around other survivors creates a beneficial communal atmosphere: “Being with people who share similar sexual violence experience gives them relief from perceiving oneself as the only victim,” Abeba told EBR.
The existence of safe houses is contributing a lot to the justice system since it serves as a place for witness protection. This is the main reason why safe houses are important in the justice system and the police are working hand in hand with such sanctuaries because the number of sexually abused victims is growing and bringing these cases to court is becoming increasingly challenging.
According to data from Addis Ababa Police Commission, 6,040 child abuse cases were reported in the past five years. However, only 25Pct of reported cases were brought to court. A little more than 10Pct of the cases, on the other hand, are closed before presented to the court of law due to insufficient evidence. The rest are cases that remained only as reported offences.
The case for adult women sexual abuse itself is no different. Of the 498 reported cases of violence within the past two years, only 16Pct have been presented in a court of law, while 2.6Pct are closed cases.
Legal practitioners say there are reasons why abuse cases are difficult to adjudicate. “The fact that proving a sexual violence case is difficult makes it to depend on circumstantial evidence,” Idris Salman, a public prosecutor, told EBR. Therefore, since the main evidence is the words of the victims and the medical result, protecting the victims from the perpetrators becomes crucial.
There are about 98 non-governmental organisations in Addis Ababa that provide services for women and children who’ve experienced abuse; and among these some of them give full accommodation as well as psychosocial support for sexually abused women and children. These safe house also provides a special consultation when victims are about to give a testimony in court.
However, these facilities serve another, more important function than witness protection: preventing further abuse. Wesenyelesh told EBR that the perpetrators of sexual abuses are usually family members, relatives, neighbors or individuals who live in close proximity to the victim. Therefore sending survivors to their house means potentially exposing them to another abuse, especially when they are children. “We can’t send them back to the place where they encounter further abuse,” said Wesenyelesh, remembering so many cases where children got abused upon returning home.
Data suggests, this group comprises the majority of cases that enter some sanctuaries. Of the 635 cases that came to AWSAD ‘s sanctuary in 2014, rape constituted 329 cases – and 405 cases involved abuse from family members, relatives, neighbours, employers and somebody they know or trust.
It is not only the MoJ and the Addis Ababa Police Commission that are working with the safe houses. The city’s Women, Children and Youth Affairs Office is also involved with these groups. Cases like Bayush’s, where women became pregnant due to rape or in case their boyfriend or husband desert them in time of delivery, the Office contacts the safe houses to get temporary shelter for them and to deliver and get themselves ready for the life after delivery. “They need a safe place to deliver their baby and get strong. A psychological makeup is also very important since most mothers tend to avoid their children if they got them with violence,” said Abeba.
The Addis Ababa Women’s Association’s safe house has 50 paralegals of its own who work in the capital’s ten districts. “Our paralegals work in awareness creation among the society and this is the time they receive cases of sexual violence and refer the case to us afterward,” says Almaz Abrha, Chairwoman of the Association. “So far 159 victims of sexual violence have been sheltered and ten babies have been born in the safe house even thought it has only been one year since the safe house was established.”
Shelter workers stress that there is high demand for the safe houses, which means they’re forced to use every space available to house victims, including the floors and offices. AWSAD’s Addis Ababa Sanctuary has 50 beds, but it currently accommodates 82 mothers and 31 children. Another eleven survivors of sexual violence sleep in the main office. Similarly, the Addis Ababa Women Association’s safe house is forced to reject male victims. “We only have two rooms that have the capacity to hold 32, and the demand of women victims is higher,” Almaz told EBR. She added that she is beginning to receive cases of violence other than sexual abuse.
Data obtained from the Addis Ababa Police Commission reveals that the number of children male victims is comparable with their female counterparts. In fact, children male victims constitute 43Pct of the total 6,040 cases reported in the past five years. Moreover, in 2011/12, 503 male children sexual violence cases were reported, while women reported 230, less than half the amount of boys.
Another factor that puts pressure on the safe houses is that survivors of sexual abuse tend to stay for a longer time. Victims are limited to a three-month stay in most safe houses, but in exceptional cases, they might prolong their stay for years. A delayed court procedure is one reason; but in case those women prefer to attain in different trainings while being at the shelter, such reasons will be a justification for prolongment. For instance, Bayush has stayed in the sanctuary for six months and will probably stay until she finishes the training, which will enable her to earn a living for her and her child when they leave the shelter. EBR

4th Year • March 16 2016 – April 15 2016 • No. 37

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