Sexual Abuse of women and children has long been an issue in Ethiopia, but since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, and schools were closed, and stay-at-home restrictions put in place, the degree of sexual violence, rape in particular, including marital abuse, has beyond dismay, skyrocketed. Women and girls already in abusive situations are more than ever exposed to increased control and restrictions by their abusers, with little or no recourse to seek support.
With this umpteenth report, we must start new conversations as regards preventing sexual violence against women and children in Africa.
Since the beginning of the Corona Virus pandemic, we have heard both internationally and nationally that the rate of violence against women has increased. Prior to COVID-19, statistics that came out four years ago show that 23% of women in Ethiopia have been sexually assaulted; out of which 68% were abused by their spouses. Furthermore, another statistic has shown that 68% of women in Ethiopia think that it is acceptable for a man to hit his wife while only 28% of men thought the same. “This is a testimony to the effects of societal pressure on women, and how much it has convinced them that being abused is right” says Ms. Senayit Tasew, who is currently working as a lawyer and consultant at the Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association.
Moreover, there are reports of women being killed and assaulted all over the world from Europe to South Africa where assault cases have increased by 37% since the beginning of the crisis. Though we tend to automatically associate sexual assault with women, a lot of men and boys have fallen prey to sexual violence as well.
Due to the Corona Virus outbreak, people who are able to work from home have resorted to doing so while those who cannot are still advised to limit their movements and move about with the utmost caution. Unfortunately, following these precautionary measures and the resulting requirements to stay at home longer than usual, there are reports showcasing the rise of gender-based violence. While there are no studies conducted in Ethiopia around sexual assault since the beginning of the crisis, a significant number of women and children have showed up at shelters fleeing sexual violence that they are subjugated to at home, which confirms these suspicions.
According to Mahlet Hailemariam from the Ethiopian Women’s Shelter Coalition, “The coalition shelter was established by 7 local NGOs and we are currently operating an emergency shelter established with the support of a UN agency. There are women and children that come to our permanent shelter; however, we are forced to turn them away for the safety of the 80-odd women and children that currently reside there. As a result, they end up on the streets. That’s why the emergency shelter was established and their stories are very different than what we are used to hearing. The fact that they are staying at home has exposed children in particular to sexual assault. We can take the example of two girls ages 14 and 17 who were raped by their fathers and were exposed to unnecessary abortion. Now they don’t have control over their bladders and the 17-year-old was even being forced by her father to take drugs. She currently doesn’t want to associate with his name and has constant nightmares.”
“Since all kids are currently out of school and some parents are not going to work, there are instances where we can deduce that the kids were assaulted at home”
In the words of Mrs. Almaz Abraha, Director of the Addis Ababa Women’s and Children’s Affairs Bureau, “Since all kids are currently out of school and some parents are not going to work, there are instances where we can deduce that the kids were assaulted at home. Though sexual assault perpetrated by a parent is nothing new, the chances of it being exposed were higher when kids were going to school. That is due to the fact that teachers and other students would spot the signs and question them. During the past two months 101 children were raped according to reports that we got from 3 hospitals. The fact that this number has come out during a time when children are confined at home and don’t have anyone to recognize the signs, as well as being threatened by the perpetrator to not say anything, is alarming.” It is indeed alarming to see such a surge in reporting especially in a country where victims are silenced in order to protect the assailant. Therefore, it’s only natural to question the actual number of children that have been assaulted the past two months without it being reported.
One of the biggest problems that is seen in shelters is psychological trauma due to the fact that these kids have been assaulted by someone they trust, someone who is supposed to protect them.
The fact that they are given drugs so that they won’t resist and the fact that they are forced not to speak about the abuse adds to the trauma. There are also cases where victims are deprived of food. “I can give you the example of a woman from Muger: She has been married to her husband for over 15 years and they have two children. But when they were forced to be confined in the same home because of the virus, he threw her out. She is currently staying with an acquaintance in Addis Ababa and goes back and forth to her city. Since the court is still open for these types of cases, she had gone there to plead her case and it got dark before she could come back to Addis. Her son then chose to hide her at home without his father’s knowledge. When in the morning her husband found out she was there, he tried to kill her and she ran away. When she came to me, she said that she didn’t have any money and had to beg to get enough for transportation” said Mrs. Almaz recalling the incident. Mrs. Almaz added that even in a marriage that has lasted a long time, changes in relationships are surfacing. Wives are discovering a new side to their husbands and are facing problems that they have never experienced in their lives. However, we cannot say that this behavior didn’t exist before; it’s just that the place and frequency may have changed.
“When women came to our facility, we could only give them advice and send them home because there was no way to take their cases to court”
Senayit Tasew states: “It has been a few months since the declaration of a state of emergency (SOH). This is usually accompanied by the suspension of some laws, which can include laws punishing criminal offenses. Moreover, the court was closed for a while at the beginning of the SOH, making it impossible to report any cases of domestic violence and sexual assault against women. When women came to our facility, we could only give them advice and send them home because there was no way to take their cases to court. However, seeing that these offenses were multiplying, the court chose to reopen for such cases. Although this problem has existed for a very long time in our society, it has never been given much importance and when the coronavirus crisis arose, it got pushed further into the background. When looking at this from the legal point of view, though we cannot say that a lot has been done to curb this problem, a legal framework in regard to violence and sexual assault perpetrated against women as well as domestic violence exists. Despite the fact that the law doesn’t properly define what domestic violence is, it describes it as violence perpetrated by a spouse or someone who lives with the victim. It has also outlined the respective punishments for these acts. But the biggest gap that we have observed is in the implementation of the law. Therefore, we need ask the following questions:
- What assistance is given to women when they come forward with their stories especially from the police who are the first responders?
- What kind of opinion/point of view do these first responders have?
- What kind of community do they come from?
- How sensitive are they to sexual assault?
Unfortunately, the police usually engage in victim-blaming mentality and women are often asked what they were wearing, at what time they were outside and if they thought that what they were doing wasn’t going to put them in this situation. So, what kind of solution can we expect from a body of the law that gives us such a response. The number of cases that get reported are already very low, and if the small number of women who come forward with their stories do not get an encouraging response, the number of cases reported will only become much smaller.
On one hand, from the court’s side, there is the problem of delay of cases. It takes more than a year to reach a verdict on a case and when the defendant is found guilty, the punishment that is decreed is not in accordance with the crime committed. On the other hand, there is a gap on the prosecutor’s side, where they don’t give attention to which sections of law the perpetrators can be charged under. This increases the already existing pressure on the community. For instance, let’s take a case that was brought to our facility,” Tasew continues, “the perpetrator was the neighbor’s son and the community tried to settle the matter by involving elders (Shimgilina). However, the mother refused and chose to take the case to court but the alleged rapist was released on bail. They live in the same compound, so she is now constantly harassed and reminded that taking him to court didn’t make a difference. Thus, she feels like her coming forward didn’t have any impact and she regrets it. Therefore, there is a need for an appropriate punishment for individuals who commit these crimes. Furthermore, we need to thoroughly review the gaps in the justice system and explore ways to improve the legal process.”
“We reside in a country where domestic violence isn’t seen as a crime in the eyes of the society,” says Mahlet Hailemariam. She adds, “We have seen multiple instances where a woman who goes to the police after being beaten by her husband is told to make peace even though what has been committed is a crime. Another common occurrence during these times is that women are forced to stay in a broken and dangerous marriage fearing that the court won’t look at the case because of the current coronavirus crisis. The same reason has also been a pretext for husbands to throw out their wives and change the locks so that they won’t return. This is where family court should be involved.” The announcement that courts were partially closed, led to an increase in domestic violence and a lot of women have ended up in shelters this way. Therefore, there is an urgent need for reform in the execution of the law because there is no reason for women to be sent back to their abusers under the pretext of making peace when the law clearly considers it as a crime.
“The pandemic is currently less of a threat than the violence perpetrated against women”
As Mrs. Almaz has stated, the pandemic is currently less of a threat than the violence perpetrated against women. If we take the necessary precautions, we can protect ourselves from the virus, but gender-based violence is entering our homes and getting embedded within us. Therefore, we need swift action from all bodies of the law. If we keep giving light sentences to rapists it does not discourage others from carrying out similar crimes because they know they won’t be held accountable. Furthermore, women and children being forced to flee gender-based violence at this time also exposes them even more to the virus.
Translated: Yemariam Sisay
Edited: Tina Mengistu