In Ethiopia, a Safe House for abused girls provides shelter and hopes for a better future

Date: 09 Oct 2012

Down a dusty suburban street, behind high whitewashed walls, gates and razor wire sits a small brick house, just like countless others in the Ethiopian city of Adama. But what's special about this particular address, is that it provides a service that is creating a future for women and girls who have experienced unthinkable abuse.

The Association for Women's Sanctuary and Development (AWSD) Safe House — supported by UN Women — is a bustling, cheerful place, filled with the sounds of children playing and the smell of injera (Ethiopian bread) being cooked.

“My generation is more aware of our rights than previous generations, and as we work together with the police, their attitudes change too, says the safe house's programme manager (whose name has been withheld for security reasons). “But many women don't know their rights, and don't know what they can do when they have been raped or subjected to violence, she adds.

To ensure full safety of the occupants, the programme manager says it is essential to maintain secrecy. “No one, not even the neighbours, knows what this house is. And not even the police know where it is.

In the past year, the safe house has given shelter to 125 women for a minimum of three months each, and provided them with intensive counseling and medical care. A key part of the centre's work is providing skills in cooking, computer literacy, hairdressing, or sewing and embroidery to each survivor.

The house contains a full-time clinic, training facility, kitchen, counseling services, an herb garden, living quarters, and an administration office. Every little corner is utilized such as the finance office, which houses the office desks, computers and printers of two staff, as well as two beds for girls, when needed.

Hana (not her real name) is 15. She was born in Gonder, 800 kilometers from Adama. Two years ago, her aunt convinced her parents to send her to Adama so that she could have an education. Instead, she found herself working as a maid in the household and being raped by her cousin. Hana became pregnant and was thrown out of the house. Too ashamed to return home, an elderly neighbour took her in and subsequently reported her case to the local police, who called the Safe House.

“I've been taught how to feed, clean and change my son. If it hadn't been for the safe house I would have had nowhere to go. I finished third grade at school, and I still want to go back one day. For now, I want to learn cooking skills so I can work to support myself and the baby, says Hana.

But the programme manager isn't optimistic about Hana's prospects for obtaining justice, “The crime was obviously reported quite late. The police are working on it, but she can't afford to pay for the DNA test, so there is no evidence.

Another girl at the house is Rahima (not her real name) who is 12 years old, and comes from a village close to Addis Ababa. Raped by her adult cousins, she woke from a week-long coma with a broken hip. One of her attackers is currently on trial, and the other has absconded. The safe house is paying for her to receive therapy so she can hope to walk without crutches in the future. Rahima's parents brought her to the safe house, since they cannot afford the treatment she needs. But she misses her family and her school.

The programme manager says demand for the services provided is high, with the police calling daily with new reports of women being beaten or raped. Unfortunately, the Safe House cannot take all of them in due to limited space and resources. But for those who enter the gates of the Safe House, it is a sanctuary, and the services provided offer a chance at self-sufficiency and rehabilitation.