Empathizing Community for Victims of Sexual Abuse

About two weeks ago, I provided psychological support to those who survived sexual violence in northern Ethiopia.  Listening to the stories of war victims created excruciating pain.  However, it was more painful that these women and girls were not accepted by their community due to the “shame they brought” to the family and the community.

A woman/girl is afraid to report sexual violations because the community rejects victims, thinking they disgraced the family.  Therefore, except for those who were severely hurt and needed medical attention to remove their uterus, had infections, and other physical problems due to attacks, apparently nobody would report these occurrences.  Those known for gang rapes would therefore be forced to flee their home and migrate to a place where they can change their identity.  

This reminded me of the story I wrote after interviewing the late AWiB Woman of Excellence, Trhas Mezgebu.  She accidentally encountered a lady who committed suicide because she lost her fifth baby during delivery.  The Gumuz community believed that a woman was unclean and their god hated to see blood, forcing women to give birth to a child away from the community in the bush.  Because of that, a woman who gives birth to a baby should stay in a bush until she is “clean” from blood.  The power of community belief governs women’s agency. 

Trhas remained in Benshangul and established the Mujejegua Loka Women Development Association in 1996.  She convinced the community that Gumuz women deserve to give birth to their babies in a caring environment, not in the bush unattended.  After her lived caring interventions, they started to buy into the idea that every Gumuz woman delivers at home with dignity and respect.  Trhas’ interventions teach us communities’ wrong beliefs can be changed through time, efforts, and evidence of correct teachings.

When communities tragically believe that sexually violated girls and women unintendedly cause their injuries, are filthy, and do not deserve human dignity, the victim-blaming culture promotes the destruction of a social fabric of caring for those who need help most.   Victims cannot seek help from medical and psychosocial health professionals.  Moreover, they will be forced to be uprooted and migrate to places no one knows their history.

Tolerating this detrimental belief and practice will prevent girls from attending school, decrease their health service-seeking behavior, and create displacement to look for a place they are not known and, therefore, accepted.  In this journey, they become more vulnerable to further acts of violence.  Their trauma becomes endless, leaving them for lifelong persecution.

Hence, we must create a caring community for sexually violated war victims, a complex and sensitive undertaking.  It requires a multifaceted approach encompassing psychological support, legal protection, education, and community involvement.

Providing psychological support alone to the victims of violence is not sufficient.  Of course, establishing counseling centers and safe houses with trained professionals specializing in trauma and sexual violence is a priority.  This will ensure their physical safety and give survivors access to therapy and support groups, creating safe spaces to share their experiences, validate their feelings, and make self-reconciliation. 

Later on, offering rehabilitation services, including medical care and surgeries, for survivors with physical injuries is the other task to stabilize and reinstate victims.  However, after that stabilization, integration work should be done whereby communities are ready to reinstate and embrace them as their valuable part.

At this stage, establishing gender-sensitive legal reforms that protect the rights of survivors and ensure their access to justice may seem far-fetched and require working on the legal systems.  I would leave that to those who work on human rights issues.  My primary concern is the community victims live in.  We need to work on raising the awareness of communities to embrace those who are violated and organize community dialogues and forums where survivors can share their stories and experiences, fostering understanding and empathy.

Apparently, in communities where sexually violated people are considered a bad omen for the community, shaming victims of sexual violence, especially in the context of war, can have severe consequences that hinder the restoration of the social fabric.

It can re-traumatize survivors, compounding their emotional and psychological distress and impeding their healing process.  Victim shaming reinforces societal stigmas around sexual violence, making it difficult for survivors to reintegrate into their communities without fear of judgment or rejection.  In addition, shaming victims can shift the focus away from holding perpetrators accountable, hindering justice and perpetuating a cycle of impunity.  Communities that engage in victim-shaming may lose trust in institutions meant to protect and support survivors, further eroding the social fabric.

Therefore, engaging community leaders, religious institutions, and local organizations in addressing the issue and providing support is mandatory to uphold social life.  As part of rehabilitation and integration, developing programs focusing on skill-building, education, and vocational training to help victims reintegrate into society with dignity and independence is essential, concurrently working on communities to embrace victims.

AWiB has celebrated women of excellence since 2012, yearly identifying those who made a difference in their communities, used their resources and positions to serve others, and created rippling transformational effects for the betterment of society.   As we are heading to celebrate the WOE of 2023 in October, I learned that the nominees had impacted hundreds and thousands in health, economic development, environmental, and social transformation.  They made a massive difference in their areas of influence.

We can learn from these women of excellence how to address societal needs. As our country passes through tragic wars, we now face the consequences of war.  To focus on one of the solutions to this tragedy, we recreate our social fabric by being an empathetic community that embraces and transforms victims of war and sexual outbreaks of violence.

Written By: Seble Hailu

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