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“I am so happy I can go back to school and learn,” says a child survivor of gender-based violence

Hawassa, SNNPR - “I am so happy I can go back to school and learn,” said 13-year-old Selma*, a child survivor of gender-based violence, to Ms. Dennia Gayle, UNFPA Country Representative, during her recent visit to the safe house in Hawassa City, Ethiopia.

Selma doesn’t know the whereabouts of her father and was raised by a mother who mistreated and neglected her since she has memory.

Every year, up to 1 billion children aged 2 to 17 years suffer some form of gender-based violence. Violence against girls is the most pervasive yet the least visible human rights violation in the world.

Selma’s lot only worsened out of home. Placed in a minors’ center, she experienced constant bullying, sexual harassment and assault by a fellow young inhabitant of the center.

From being forced to accept the unacceptable and having lived it for so long, she found a place to call "home" when a teacher and school matron moved her to the safe house three years ago.  

“She has now recovered from her trauma and can be a young girl again,” said Selma’s counsellor whose name is being withheld for security reasons.

An invisible pandemic

In Ethiopia, stories like Selam’s are common. When protection systems are eroded and families undergo enormous stress, violence intensifies at home. Women and girls become targets for assault or commodities for barter.

Safe houses become more important than ever. “Many women and girls suffering from gender-based violence don’t have a place to go. They are ostracized by their families and communities due to social norms” said Bethlehem Kebede, UNFPA Gender and Human Rights Specialist about the survivors’ reality in the country.

Selam’s safe house is one of the five safe houses that the Association for Women Sanctuary and Development (AWSAD) is running across the country, three of which are being supported by UNFPA.

Girls are often the majority of survivors seeking a safe haven. “About 90% of the residents in our safe house are under the age of 18 years,” said Ms. Rahel Mesfin, Manager of the Hawassa branch of AWSAD.  

At the safe house gender-based violence survivors receive comprehensive services including immediate needs of psycho-social support, medico-legal care, shelter and other long-term interventions like income generating skills.

“They can stay until they finish their medical treatment or until their court cases are put to rest. They must be ready for a new start,” said the counsellor to UNFPA.

Looking Ahead

As part of its commitment towards fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals, UNFPA is pursuing a transformative result to end gender-based violence and end all forms of harmful practices against women and girls by 2030.

To this end, UNFPA Ethiopia has intensified the work with partners, including governments, women’s organizations and youth groups, to end gender-based violence and ensure protection is available for all.
For girls like Selam, the safe house is the only opportunity to rebuild their lives. She has no other relatives and nowhere to go.

Increasing access to protection services through women’s safe spaces, one-stop centres, and additional safe houses across the country is critical to recognize and address the full scale of the problem.

Today, Selam is happily back to school. She has found joy and a new family who cares for her in Hawassa. As the greeting card that she gave to Ms. Dennia said “Thanks for visiting me. Come back soon”.

*Name changed for privacy and protection reasons