Survivors of sexual violence face untold stigma in Ethiopia
"They had their way with me. After one guy finished, another one followed. The ground I fell on had thorns, so it hurt. They played me like a toy," says Betty, as she struggles to suppress tears.
Betty was gang-raped on her way to the market, and her three-year-old son watched it happen. She kept it to herself, fearing ridicule from her community. But her worst fear became a reality when her story eventually came out.
"No one knew [apart from my son]. I did not say anything after they raped me. Somehow, people found out and now I have become the laughing stock of my town," she explains.
Between her deep breaths, she tells the story of how she has faced stigma from her family and community since then. Betty does not understand why she is being rejected and abandoned by society, when it was never her fault. Society has tormented and ridiculed her because of her misfortune.
In Ethiopian communities like Betty's, sexual violence is traditionally a taboo and has driven families apart. It happens in different communities across the country, but the situation is particularly worrying in areas affected by conflict.
"Some say I deserved it. It hurts when they say that. It is very hard for us to move around freely because of something we had no control over," she says.
The prevailing stigma means victims of sexual violence, like Betty, cannot open up to seek life-saving care. Often, they hide it. And many cases are not reported or investigated.
"It is very hard to speak about," says Betty.
Another survivor, a 40-year-old single mother of four, was already struggling to care for her children alone after the death of her husband. She relied on her small business, selling tea and bread. But was forced to close her business when conflict hit her town in northern Ethiopia. She was raped and assaulted at gunpoint by unidentified men who broke into her home at night. Her 10-year-old son who witnessed the act was also assaulted by her rapists. Now she cannot resume her small business because the community has isolated her.
"Four days after, I was not able to walk or speak. When neighbours asked my daughter with autism, she told them that I was raped. Then they began to mock at me," narrates the survivor.
The conflict and other situations of violence in parts of the country have intensified this harmful practice, causing immense suffering for survivors, and driving families apart. Men also experience sexual violence, but the prevalence of stigma in these communities has prevented most of them from disclosing it. Male survivors find it even harder to reveal or discuss their experiences in these Ethiopian communities where societal expectations are that men should not appear to be weak or vulnerable.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is working to mobilize more resources and make the changes that will guarantee the safety, protection and dignity of survivors of sexual violence and their families both in the immediate and long-term.
The costs of conflict are high; the price paid by women and girls is immeasurable. Conflict-related sexual violence takes an untold toll on survivors, and societal stigma prevents victims from coming forward and getting the help they need.#SexualViolence #StopTheStigma pic.twitter.com/Dv1W3VeGva— ICRC Ethiopia (@ICRCEthiopia) June 18, 2022
"Sexual violence such as rape and assault can be life-threatening. It is important to seek medical care preferably within the first three days," says Hanna Persson, ICRC's Sexual Violence Operations Manager in Ethiopia. "Although it is never the survivors' fault, many of them feel ashamed to seek life-saving care because of the stigma in their community."
Sexual violence has serious humanitarian consequences even in the long term and the scale of humanitarian needs is aggravated by the soaring stigma. The horrific mental and physical wounds suffered by survivors are appalling.
"I was infected with a sexually transmitted disease. I eventually got treated but still, I am unable to control my urine. Sometimes I wish they had just finished me," says Betty.
The ICRC works in a range of ways to prevent and adequately respond to sexual violence in Ethiopia, including in areas affected by conflict; supporting victims to safely access medical services, receive cash assistance, food and non-food items. Our services also include helping survivors to identify and reunite with their families when separated. The ICRC also works to create awareness about sexual violence among different members of the society so that they can help survivors recover, by being kind and respectful to them and helping them to access medical care.
Although sexual violence is never the survivor's fault, many are ashamed to seek medical attention for fear of being stigmatized by the community. You can play an important role in ending this stigma. #InternationalDayfortheEliminationofSexualViolenceinConflict pic.twitter.com/TAgLsvavqB— ICRC Ethiopia (@ICRCEthiopia) June 19, 2022
The ICRC supports 16 One Stop Centers across the country that provide medical care, mental health and psychosocial support, legal support, and the opportunity for survivors to meet a social worker. The organization also supports 6 safe houses and an additional 22 health facilities in conflict-affected areas with medicines, basic materials, dignity kits, food, rents, and capacity building to facilitate urgent medical care for survivors of sexual violence.
*Name of survivor changed for privacy reasons