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Letter From Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Inside a Safe House for Ethiopian Women

Set off of one of Addis Ababa's main streets is a secret, self-enclosed village. In that village, girls like Raissa—some as young as 11 years old—fleeing bride abduction, early marriage, and other harmful practices have found a refuge.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Off one of central Addis Ababa's many bustling streets—past the vendors selling local fruits and vegetables and the young men shining the shoes of the wealthy—is a secret, self-enclosed village. In that village, women and girls, some as young as 11, have found a refuge. They have given birth to babies conceived from rape and fled bride abduction, early marriage, and other abuses. They have come from across Ethiopia to heal from horrors. Some humanitarian workers suspect increased rates of gender-based violence might be linked to the country's current drought, its worst in decades.

The dirt path leading to the entrance of the safe house was eerily quiet; nobody would guess an entire community of more than a hundred women and children lives inside. The safe house changes its location every few years to maintain secrecy. Upon entering the compound, the coordinator of the safe house greeted me while two young boys clung to her thighs. "Welcome to the Association for Women's Sanctuary and Development," she said.

The compound is shaped like a half-moon with a courtyard in the middle, where residents huddled around a television. At the base of the half-moon is a dorm-like room where about half a dozen babies slept on the bottom bunks. Some of the 44 infants who lived there at the time of my visit had been birthed in the safe house—a nurse and midwife are on staff. The mothers of those babies were busy learning skills that could help them find employment when they are ready to leave. They may choose from an array of offerings, like bamboo-weaving, culinary skills, self-defense classes, and embroidery.

In the classroom, which doubles as a library, a few girls sat reading. They looked up shyly, and greeted me. "Selam," they said, giggling. They were wrapping up their literacy class; the vast majority of the women and girls who stay in the safe house arrive with no reading or writing skills. But when I visited, 18 of the girls were enrolled in university or other training programs, and their children were kept in the safe house's daycare while they attended school.

In the hair salon next door, four girls huddled around the client, whose head was half unkempt and half straightened. One of the stylists began to delicately straighten small sections of hair as the others watched. Soneli,* one of the girls learning hairdressing, had a bright scarf wrapped around her head. She was 16 years old but told me she was 15 when she arrived at the shelter and gave birth. She arrived seven months pregnant after her sister's husband raped her, but didn't know she was carrying a child. When I asked her what it's like to be a mother so young, she told me, "I accept it as the will of God." Soneli, who was attending counseling sessions every Friday, said: "When I first arrived, I would cry all of the time. ... I was very traumatized, but after many counseling sessions I am starting to feel better." She dreams of continuing hairdressing and getting her education, "to help people who have problems like me," she said.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support independent journalism in the public interest.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support journalism in the public interest.

Nearby, in the nurse's quarters, two people lay on cots opposite one another. One woman was suffering from a fistula, and an 18-year-old girl named Raissa was undergoing physiotherapy. Before she came to the safe house, Raissa attended school and helped her family by fetching water and performing other household chores in North Shewa, a region about 80 miles northeast of Addis Ababa. One day, Raissa, who was then 15, was returning from the local market when a group of men approached and captured her. One man, who wanted to marry her, tried to force her to sign a piece of paper saying she consented to the abduction; she refused. The men pushed her over the edge of a ditch. Someone found her and contacted her family, who took her to the hospital. She is now paralyzed from the waist down.

After I met Raissa, the coordinator took me to a conference area at the other end of the half-moon, where a caseworker and therapist shared one of the more disturbing cases they had seen. One girl had arrived at the shelter after police discovered that her father had been raping her for four years. She became pregnant three times, and each time her father took her to get an abortion, he told the service provider it was a boyfriend's baby.

As the women told me this, some of the safe house's survivors calmly baked sugar cookies in a nearby kitchen. Before leaving, the women shared some with me along with a cup of traditional Ethiopian coffee. It was astonishing to see how the safe house channeled violent suffering into generosity.

As the coordinator walked me out, she handed me a bright orange card with colorful hearts pasted on the front. "What's this?" I asked, opening the card. The women made it, she explained. Inside, in beautiful handwriting perched on top of a cardboard cut-out house, it read, "Welcome to the safe house," and "Thank you for coming."

A version of this story, which was reported on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project, originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. All of the survivors' names have been changed. Subscribe now to support independent journalism in the public interest.