Ethiopia

Hidden in Plain Sight: Conflicts fueling sexual violence in northern Ethiopia

MEKELLE, Tigray - "We fled on the back of a truck. When they captured us, they took me to another place, they raped me, and left me alone in the bush." says Mahlet, a 17-year-old survivor of conflict-related sexual violence in Tigray. I regained consciousness one day later, but there was no one around to support me."

"I tried to get medical attention, but the health facilities were not working. There were no medicines, nothing", adds Mahlet about her perilous journey seeking safety and health care services amid active hostilities in northern Ethiopia at the end of November 2021.

Extensive damage and looting of supplies and equipment at medical facilities have decimated the health system in conflict-affected regions in northern Ethiopia. More than 3.9 million people in Tigray and 10 million in Amhara are estimated to be in need of life-saving health services. In Afar, only 20% of the health facilities are functional.

Today, Mahlet is seven months pregnant. She came alone to the Women and Girls' Friendly Space supported by UNFPA at Sabacare 4, an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp on the outskirts of Mekelle, Tigray. She does not know what happened to her family.

Hidden in plain sight

Risks of sexual violence increase significantly wherever conflict erupts, and adolescent girls like Mahlet are particularly vulnerable. It's estimated that up to 70 percent of women in crisis settings experience gender-based violence, compared to 1 in 3 globally.

"I keep my pregnancy a secret because if one of the community leaders knows my case, they will say: 'Oh! She is 17 years old, but she is pregnant.' I have fear of social stigma and discrimination" Mahlet shared with UNFPA.

Few survivors of sexual violence report their ordeal -- for fear of stigma or rejection by their families or communities -- and even less get justice. Constrained by a culture of silence, they hide in plain sight with limited access to humanitarian aid and support.

"This situation of isolation is common in survivors of sexual violence," Senait Geber, Gender-Based Violence Case Manager at a UNFPA-supported Women and Girls' Friendly Space told UNFPA. "They are invisible in the camp and engage in commercial sex and other activities simply to survive."

Devastating impacts that last a lifetime

The physical and mental scars of sexual violence are long-lasting -- and for some women and girls long-lasting means a lifetime of torment and anguish.

"How can I carry on with this baby? I am begging for clothes and food," says Mahlet, clearly physically and psychological exhausted. "I can't even provide for my daily needs."

Women who become pregnant as a result of rape during conflicts are more likely to resort to suicide, unsafe abortion, and infanticide. Women who carry the pregnancy to term often face a life of exclusion, abandonment, and poverty.

"Many survivors speak of their wish to die or have suicidal thoughts rather than endure such long-term trauma," says a nurse at a One-Stop Centre who wishes to remain anonymous.

Providing a safe haven for recovery and healing

Women and Girls' Friendly Spaces and One-Stop Centres (OSCs) provide an entry point for sexual survivors to access specialized medical services and psychosocial counseling and are a place of safety. The spaces connect women in need of long-term healing and recovery with Safe Houses where they receive shelter, food, medical care, counseling, legal services, and livelihoods training, for a time when they feel ready to go back out into the world and begin the slow process of rebuilding their lives.

Across northern Ethiopia, UNFPA is supporting 11 Women and Girls' Friendly Spaces in IDP camps and 20 One-Stop Centers, providing critical reproductive health supplies, medicines, and equipment and building the capacity of frontline service providers. To date, nearly 25,000 conflict-affected individuals have been reached with psychosocial counseling. In Tigray and Amhara Regions, UNFPA also supports three Safe Houses to enable survivors to recover holistically, a slow process that can take up to two years with intensive counseling and support.

Mahlet is no longer living in terror at the camp or worrying about her most basic needs. She received counseling at a Women and Girls' Friendly Space and was referred to a Safe House due to her fragile mental and physical health. Like many other women and girls, she will find a new family there who will care for her until she finds the will to live again.

The UNFPA Humanitarian Response Appeal 2022 is calling for nearly US $24 million to respond to the urgent protection and health needs of women and girls in eight crisis-affected regions in Ethiopia. Girls like Mahlet whose lives have been shattered by conflict. To date, only 56% has been funded.