MORONI, The Comoros – “I followed him into the house. I didn’t know he was going to rape me.” At just 13 years old, Mariama* was sexually assaulted by a neighbour when she returned home from school: Nine months later, still a child herself, she became a mother.
“At 16, I have a daughter who is almost one and a half years old.”
Some 17 per cent of women in the Comoros have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence in their lives, and more than 30 per cent of girls are married while they are still children. Most cases of violence were reported by young girls, explained Said Ahamed Said, from the Ministry of Health: “Last year we received 173 reports of sexual violence, of which 162 were against young girls under age 17.”
Despite the trauma and terror, Mariama was determined to seek help and justice. She turned to the UNFPA-supported Listening and Protection Service for Children and Women Victims of Violence in the capital city Moroni, for guidance.
“My aunt had heard about the centre from a friend and brought me here,” she said. The centre provided medical and legal assistance, and followed up the case in the courts after the man’s arrest.
Protection services help survivors rebuild their lives
Mr. Said says the officially reported cases of violence may only be the tip of the iceberg, pointing to social norms as well as women’s economic vulnerability.
“It is considered taboo for a woman to report violence. As long as she still shares the home with the man, she will rarely come forward. The women often don’t have a source of income and there are no social services to manage such cases, nor places where they can find shelter,” he explained.
Women also often avoid divorce, as they typically struggle with the financial fallout, added Mr. Said. “When a man divorces a woman, he doesn’t take care of the children anymore.”
There are reasons to be optimistic though, he said. “After 17 years of this centre's existence, it is encouraging to see that people are becoming more conscious now and they can denounce violence, compared to how things were before."
UNFPA supports the Listening Service by providing midwifery and contraceptive services, post-rape care and screenings for sexually-transmitted infections, as well as referrals to hospitals. Since 2021 a psychologist has also been deployed to help women and girls who have been left to take care of their families alone.
Delivering justice and support for women and girls
UNFPA is working to monitor and end all forms of violence against women and girls in the Comoros, through capacity strengthening programmes for partners, establishing a toll-free hotline that survivors can call for help and supporting medical and legal assistance.
The sense of urgency in ensuring accountability for sexual violence was stressed at a recent side event to the 77th UN General Assembly, which emphasized the need to focus on survivors’ needs and rights above all.
UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem said, “The survivor-centred approach we promote is about listening to survivors, treating them with dignity, and advocating for a response centred on their needs and wishes.”
“Very few have access to justice, and most perpetrators never face responsibility for their crimes. Such impunity silences the survivors and emboldens the perpetrators."
For Mariama, justice was frustratingly short lived: Her rapist was released after serving just one year in jail. “I still see him in our neighbourhood, but I always stay away or change my route. If he tries to talk to me, I will not answer,” she said.
Although she fears being attacked again, she is defiant. “My focus now is my education: I want to become a lawyer.”
Mariama wants to stand up for herself and for others, especially her daughter. “I want her to be able to better defend herself and other young girls who may suffer any form of abuse.”
It is a goal Dr. Kanem expressed for women and girls everywhere: “Sexual violence is not inevitable,” she said. “We cannot allow it to become normalized in any way. This is a global emergency that demands our full commitment, collaboration and mobilization: Women and girls cannot wait."
*Name changed for privacy and protection