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SocietyForgotten and forsaken: Tigray's women struggle for help

Forgotten and forsaken: Tigray’s women struggle for help

Hewyet fights alone as government turns a blind eye

Forgotten and forsaken: Tigray's women struggle for help | The Reporter | #1 Latest Ethiopian News TodayEvery day, a steady stream of women and girls flock to the compound nestled in Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray regional state. Whoever once proclaimed that “time heals everything” clearly underestimated the enduring scars of gender-based violence. These resilient women have sought refuge in this safe house for the past three years, desperately attempting to carve a brighter future while burying the haunting memories of their past.

Since its inception in 2020, nearly 5,000 women and girls have sought solace behind the gates of this sanctuary—a rehabilitation, training, and stabilization center for victims of war-related sexual assault in Tigray.

Aptly named Hewyet, meaning “healing,” this civic society initiative operates not only in Mekelle but also spans four other locations: Adwa, Axum, Shire, and Adigrat.

During a recent visit to the safe house, The Reporter was greeted by a solemn sight. Rows of women and girls, seated on the raw cement floor, anxiously awaited their turn to meet the compassionate figure who runs the facility and serves as their guide through life’s tumultuous journey: the indomitable founder of Hewyet, Meseret Hadush.

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Among those patiently awaiting her turn was Semret Gebre-medhin, a 70-year-old woman who traveled to Mekelle from her war-ravaged home in Qafta Humera in November 2020.

Her voice trembled as she shared her harrowing tale, recounting the agonizing hours spent on the road with her daughter and granddaughter. “When we reached a place called Adebay, located several hours away from our home, we were viciously attacked and raped,” Semret said. “My granddaughter is now 15.”

She revealed that the devastating aftermath of their assault continued to plague all three victims. Semret’s heart-wrenching account took a grim turn as she disclosed that they had been diagnosed with HIV and uterine cancer. While the two adult women diligently followed their prescribed medication regimen, the 15-year-old girl bore the brunt of her afflictions, unable to attend school due to a constant and unrelenting leakage of an unknown fluid from her uterus.

“The ceaseless flow confines her to our home,” she said.

Seated beside Semret, Hiwot Fethawi, a 35-year-old woman, concealed half of her face with a green scarf, her gaze lost in the distance.

Hiwot recounted her own painful journey, originating from Setit Humera, where she was forced to flee her home when the war commenced four years ago.

“I was with my two children when we reached Dedbit. It was there that three Eritrean soldiers captured me, subjecting me to repeated acts of rape over a harrowing three-day period,” Hiwot confided, her voice quivering with anguish.

Following the relentless sexual violence, Hiwot succumbed to unconsciousness, her children hovering by her side. It was then that a charitable organization vehicle, the name of which she struggled to recall, happened upon the scene and rescued Hiwot and her traumatized children.

“The last memory I have is from the third night of my ordeal, as they violated me. In that moment, I found solace in knowing that my children were spared from their cruelty,” Hiwot recounted. I was thanking God that this is only happening to me. And then I found myself in Shire.”

Subsequently, a military vehicle from the Tigray region transported them to Mekelle, where Hiwot received medical treatment at the Mekelle Ayder Referral Hospital for 10 months.

It was during this period that she received the devastating news of her HIV diagnosis and uterine cancer. Presently, she relies on a regimen of medications to manage her conditions.

“I do not feel any hope in my own life,” Hiwot whispered through tears. “If it weren’t for my children, I doubt I would be willing to stay alive until now.”

Despite the darkness that engulfs their lives, Hiwot’s two children, aged 8 and 11, have managed to find solace in education. Enrolled in schools in Mekelle, they represent a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak existence.

The harrowing stories do not end there.

Sara Haile, a resilient 21-year-old woman, stands as another testament to the horrors inflicted upon the victims. Born in the disputed area of Western Tigray, specifically Humera, on October 20, 2003, Sara’s life took a devastating turn when the war erupted, interrupting her education at the eighth grade. Fleeing to the northwest of Tigray, she hoped to find safety in the face of escalating violence.

“The intensity of the conflict grew exponentially in the northern part of Tigray. It became painfully clear to me that even children like myself were not spared from the perils that lurked within the confines of the IDP camps,” Sara recounted. Her voice trembled as she continued, “During the second round of the war in Adi-arqay, I found myself under attack, three bullets piercing my body—one in my leg, one in my arm, and another grazing the edge of my neck.”

Uncertain of the identity of her captors, whether Ethiopian soldiers or Amhara combatants, Sara shared that her ordeal had only just begun. She says she was handed over to a battalion of Eritrean soldiers who were encamped nearby. The Eritrean soldiers, amassing approximately 200 captives, subsequently embarked on a treacherous journey, escorting them across the Eritrean desert.

“After enduring a long and tiring journey, with my fellow captives tending to my wounds along the way, we were left to languish in an unknown desert in Eritrea,” Sara explained.

According to Sara, it was on September 25, 2022, that the Eritrean soldiers began subjecting her to unimaginable acts of rape. “I pleaded with them to end my life, but they callously dismissed my pleas, asserting that death would be too merciful for me,” Sara recalled. For five agonizing months, she endured the relentless torment, violated every single day.

After five months of unspeakable agony, Sara says a dispute erupted between Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers, some distance away from where they were held captive. “A contingent of Ethiopian forces approached us, and one of them inquired, ‘Who are you? And where did you come from?'”

Forgotten and forsaken: Tigray's women struggle for help | The Reporter | #1 Latest Ethiopian News Today

In the midst of the exchange, Sara says an Eritrean soldier abruptly interjected before they could answer, asserting that the captive group consisted of Tigrayan military fighters. Perplexed, the Ethiopian soldier sought clarification, questioning why they were present there. This sparked another round of quarrels between the soldiers from the two countries, intensifying the already charged atmosphere.

Eventually, the Ethiopian soldiers made a decision. They selected the remaining 87 individuals, including Sara and nine other women, to be transported back to Tigray.

However, their return was far from salvation. Sara revealed the grim truth—each of the ten women were raped, resulting in all of them becoming pregnant.

Once back in Tigray, she says the Ethiopian soldiers abandoned them, leaving them to fend for themselves. The group dispersed, each survivor forced to navigate the aftermath of their traumatic experiences in their own way.

Sara recounted her subsequent journey, sharing that she traveled to Mekelle seeking medical treatment. From there, she was directed to the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, where she underwent an examination. It was during this examination that she received the news—she was already five months pregnant. When she inquired about the possibility of having an abortion, the doctors informed her that it would pose a significant risk to her life.

On June 25, 2023, Sara gave birth to her child, surrounded by the weight of uncertainty and the painful remnants of her past. The identity of the baby’s father remains a mystery, but Sara chose to name the child after her own father.

Within the community where she resides, rumors circulate, falsely suggesting that she had her father’s baby. Sara, burdened by the complexities of her truth, finds herself unable to correct these misconceptions, aware that the actual story carries a far greater weight of suffering.

The intertwining of twisted narratives and the multitude of complications have left Sara feeling utterly hopeless in her day-to-day life.

Meseret, the founder of Hewyet, shared her insights with The Reporter, shedding light on the initial hesitations and challenges faced by women and girls seeking refuge at the safe house. According to Meseret, when she first started offering her services during the war, most women displayed no interest in seeking shelter or support. She says most were consumed by fear and shame, driven by cultural norms, societal pressures, and religious beliefs that made them believe they were inferior.

Meseret explained that the trauma experienced by sexually violated and abused women and girls often led them to believe that their lives hold no value. Overcoming this deep-rooted psychological impact proved to be an arduous task, as their pain and suffering were difficult to fully comprehend.

The healing process, she emphasized, required time, patience, and empathetic listening. To encourage women to come forward and seek help, Hewyet collaborated with religious organizations and engaged in government meetings.

The safe house began providing services during the war, but it has only been a year since the necessary legal permits and procedures were finalized before receiving its civil society certification. Meseret said that “the government thoroughly examined the services Hewyet provided for two years before granting the permit.”

Hewyet’s comprehensive support system includes psychological treatment, covering all medical expenses and medications. Once the treatment phase concludes, the organization offers training in various simple job opportunities that can be pursued from the women’s homes or local surroundings. Additionally, each woman is provided with 50,000 birr as start-up capital to establish their own businesses.

Meseret highlighted that to date, Hewyet has provided assistance to 4,800 women and girls. “We have diligently documented their progress starting from the day they enter the safe house until they complete the entire process and launch their businesses.” She revealed that up to 40 victims seek refuge at the safe house every day, underscoring the urgent need for such support services in the community.

The women who have sought refuge at Hewyet face significant challenges, particularly when it comes to accessing necessary medications. Among the victims, 15 percent have been diagnosed with HIV, and all the women are currently taking mental health medications. However, obtaining these medications poses a major obstacle for them.

Semret shared her experience, explaining that often they are forced to make difficult choices between buying medicine and purchasing food.

“As we get sicker, we go to Ayder Hospital seeking medical help but they advise as to take our medications properly,” she said.

This is when they turned to Hewyet for assistance. However, while Hewyet provides support, the lack of access to food remains a pressing issue. “Hewyet can only do so much. Even if we get the medications, we don’t have food.”

She says many of the women have to skip meals or even go without food for days. Their living conditions in plastic tents exacerbate the challenges, particularly during chilly nights.

Other women at the safe house echoed Semret’s sentiments, emphasizing the hardships they face.

Hiwot, who used to have a happy home with a husband and two children, now finds herself in a plastic tent, considering it a fortunate day if her children can have two meals. Their lives have been dramatically upended, and the struggle to afford both medication and basic necessities is a constant burden.

Meseret explained that each woman with HIV and/or womb cancer “requires around eight different types of medications daily.” While some of these medications are available at hospitals, the rest must be purchased from private pharmacies, which demands significant financial resources.

The women, however, lack the financial means to afford these medications, viewing them as a luxury.

Distressingly, Semret said that neither the federal government nor the regional interim administrations are providing them with any aid. They feel forgotten and abandoned, with little to no opportunities for rehabilitation or support being created by the government.

Hiwot agrees. “No one from government approached us or offered assistance to prevent us from resorting to begging.

She emphasized that the only support they receive comes from foreign and international humanitarian organizations. However, this support is limited to medicine and wheat flour, and deliveries occur only every few months, leaving the women in a constant state of uncertainty.

Semret further explained the challenges they face, highlighting that even the washable sanitary pads provided to them had to be discarded because there is a lack of water for washing.

Sadly, the organization receives no financial or other resources from either the federal government or the regional administration, according to Meseret. She says she relies on financial support from the Diaspora community and individuals within the country who wish to contribute.

However, Frewoini Gebre, head of Tigray Interim Admin Women Affairs Bureau, told The Reporter that the regional administration is actively assisting women by offering comprehensive medical support through centralized services available in hospitals across seven cities within the state. These cities include Mekelle, Axum, Adigrat, and Abi Adi.

Meseret says that to provide comprehensive services to just 50 women or girls, three million birr is required every three months. This means that supporting 200 women annually would amount to a total expense of 12 million birr.

In the past year, Hewyet has assisted 82 women in starting their own businesses. The exact number of women and girls who have experienced gender-based violence in Tigray remains unknown, Meseret says.

During an assessment conducted in one woreda, Meseret discovered that in just seven health centers, 960 mothers reported being raped. She stressed that these women have suffered in every possible aspect—physically, psychologically, socially, and economically.

Despite their dire circumstances, there is a lack of awareness about how many more women are out there in need of help, let alone the ability to provide assistance to them. Meseret said: “No one in Tigray actually knows how many women were raped, let alone being able to help them.”

Meseret urged the government to play an active role in addressing the situation and supporting these survivors of gender-based violence.

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