Survivors find sanctuary and second chance through Ethiopian safe houses

In the town of Adama, women and children violence survivors find shelter and a way to make a living, using skills learned at a safe house supported by UN Women.

Date: Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Sahara* ran away from home when she was 10 years old and spent years living on the streets of Adama, in central Ethiopia, finding work as a cleaner when she could. Homeless and unemployed, she was 20 when she arrived at a safe house run by the Association for Women’s Sanctuary and Development (AWSD), which is supported by UN Women.

“I was living on the street with two young children, all alone, with no one to help me,” she says. When she sought out the safe house, she says, it wasn’t for her own sake. Desperate to ensure her children avoided her own fate, she was actually attempting to give them up.

Two young girls play a game at the Safe House where they live in Adama. Photo: Felix Eldridge.
Two young girls play a game at the Safe House where they live in Adama. Photo: Felix Eldridge.

When Sahara arrived, she found a warm and welcoming environment, abuzz with the laughter of many children like her own. Of the 35 people living at the shelter, 19 were adult women, along with nine children and seven babies. 

“I’m so glad I went there, because they gave us a home, and taught me to cook.”

Between the safe house in Adama and another in Addis Ababa, nearly 2000 survivors have escaped violence and dire poverty as a result.

“To control their own lives and reach their full potential, women need to be financially independent,” says UN Women Representative in Ethiopia, Letty Chiwara. “This is the premise behind UN Women’s economic empowerment programming, but financial independence is also vital for survivors of gender-based violence to heal and lead fulfilling lives. The safe houses help them do just that.” 

In keeping with these principles, the safe house in Adama takes a holistic approach in dealing with gender-based violence, recognizing that survivors must be independent if they are to live lives free from violence in the future. The safe house provides skills training based on their own choice, for every woman and girl who stays there, whether it’s food preparation and cooking, computer literacy, hairdressing, or sewing and embroidery.

At the safe house’s sewing school in Adama’s bustling town centre, the mood among the dozen women in class, many of them survivors of violence staying at the safe house, is ebullient. None of them had any sewing experience before they arrived. But after classes for two hours daily over the past four months, they are now adept at using patterns to make sample designs, having worked on newspaper before moving on to real fabric. 

Heran*, a trainee, says that trousers are the hardest sewing job to learn, but she has mastered it now. “When we first started, it would take a week to make a pair of trousers. Now we can do it in just one day,” she said.

Sahara learned to cook and today, at 21 years of age, she manages a small cafeteria as part of a cooperative of nine survivors of violence, trained to cook at the safe house. They serve traditional Ethiopian food like injera (flat, soft bread); wat, a deep-red spicy stew, and of course, ceremonially prepared Ethiopian coffee. The aroma fills the courtyard all day long, as beans are roasted on an open fire, ground by hand, and then brewed into thick, black coffee before being served.

Sahara is emotional when she speaks about her experience with the cafeteria: “At first, managing the business was a challenge, but when we started making profits, it was a very exciting feeling. I was so, so happy!” 

While taking care of her kids is still challenge, the cooperative has established a system whereby staff take turns babysitting for the group, so that everyone can work. Sahara designs the menu, and says it has evolved as she has become more familiar with customers’ tastes. 

“Our best-seller is our ferfer (chopped injera with sauce). Local workers love it, including more than a few police officers.” 

Sahara has since left the safe house and rented a house, with AWSAD’s support for the rent. Her plan is to eventually move on and work independently of the cooperative: “I hope one day to own my own cafeteria.” 

*Name changed to protect her identity

For more information on UN Women's efforts to end violence against women, please visit our special In Focus compilation for 25 November, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.