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Analysis: Tigrayan victims of horrific sexual violence turn to ‘Holy Water’ in search of healing

A mother residing in Kolla Temben who is a victim of sexual violence resorts of tearing off her clothing when experiencing distress and trauma (Photo: Hiwuyet charity)

By Mihret G/kristos @MercyG_kirstos

Addis Abeba – Throughout the two-year brutal war in the Tigray regional state, thousands of girls and women were subjected to extreme sexual violence including sexual slavery and gang rape perpetrated by Ethiopian and Eritrean armed groups that left them physically and emotionally destroyed.

A grim report by Refugees International released on 27 November conducted by Senior fellow Sarah Miller after extensive field research and interviews with victims and health workers in the Tigray region, revealed that an estimated 40–50% of Tigrayan girls and women experienced gender-based violence during the war. Of these victims, over 80% reported being raped, with nearly 70% reporting brutal gang rape by armed groups.

The report also highlighted the lack of available support for the population of over seven million in the Tigray region, with only three clinical psychologists struggling to provide support. This has led to the abused girls and women confronted with severe forms of trauma and turn to the use of holy water in search of a healing.

In the rural Kolla Temben district, located some 95km from Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region, Addis Standard spoke to survivors of sexual violence via phone. Part of this difficult conversation involves not only an attempt to understand their lived experiences but also assess their current needs including access to medical care and psychological support.

One such individual, who spoke on conditions of anonymity, is a woman nearly 60 years of age, who shared a harrowing account of being sexually assaulted by an Eritrean armed forces.

[I] was preparing myself for a life dedicated to serving God as a nun. The overwhelming helplessness has shattered my aspirations and faith at a time when I had hoped to devote [my life] to religious service…

Victim of sexual violence

She was alone at home when several armed men, who had taken control of the village, were heard shouting outside. After initially dismissing the noise as routine, she soon realized the gravity of her predicament when an unidentified armed man with a covered face forcibly entered her home and subjected her to a horrific sexual assault. The pain and distress she went through has left her living with the untreated trauma of sexual violence.

The appalling event marked a profound tragedy especially since she “was preparing myself for a life dedicated to serving God as a nun. The overwhelming helplessness has shattered my aspirations and faith at a time when I had hoped to devote [my life] to religious service,” she said with sorrow.

Three other survivors interviewed by Addis Standard offered similar stories. One of whom is a young girl who was gang-raped at the age of 16 in Kolla Temben. She was with her family, fleeing for her life due to the war in their village. “Two armed men took me away from my family and raped me,” she said adding that her rapists were “speaking in Amharic”.

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Confronted with the harsh experience of both physical and psychological pain, they all said they are in need of medical care. The lack of access to medical treatment is further compounded by the war-related wanton destruction of health care facilities in their village.

Meseret Hadish, founder of Hiwuyet local charity organization based in Mekelle, is dedicated to facilitating trauma healing for sexual violence victims including by providing diverse training opportunities. The primary goal of the organization is to support individuals affected by trauma, subsequently engaging with victims in various activities while securing the necessary financial resources to sustain these initiatives. Since the foundation of Hiwuyet in the wake of the war at least 60 girls and women were supported and engaged with in different activities.

Due to the absence of adequate treatment, victims depend on their religion for healing from the physical and psychological trauma [as well as social] stigma, forcing them to turn to holy water rather than seek healthcare.”

Meseret Hadish

In the face of the unspeakable and harrowing sexual violence endured by Tigray’s girls and women during the war, words fall short of encapsulating the magnitude of this tragic ordeal, Meseret said. “During my recent visit to a rural area, I encountered the distressing reality of a mother and her two young daughters, all victims of this heinous act,” Meseret told Addis Standard.

Meseret recounted her poignant experiences while visiting victims in the rural area of Kolla Temben, which served as a military camp for Eritrean and subsequently Ethiopian forces during the brutal war.

She shares the distressing aftermath of severe atrocities inflicted upon over 360 girls and mothers for months. These acts of violence included harrowing encounters of sexual violence alongside ruthless cruelty such as the mass slaughter of livestock, deliberate arson targeting homes, extensive destruction of property, and the looting of essential items, including blankets and beds. Victims in the district were besieged with lack of transportation and the absence of a telecommunication network depriving them of crucial assistance and support throughout the course of the war.

“Due to the absence of adequate treatment, victims depend on their religion for healing from the physical and psychological trauma [as well as social] stigma, forcing them to turn to holy water rather than seek healthcare.”

During a visit to Mekelle and Abyiadi Internal displaced people (IDP) camp in September, Addis Standard observed several victims of sexual violence living in camps with no medical treatment, and left with their born as a result of rape who are suffering from starvation, facing a double stigma.

A report on Addis Standard narrated the harrowing ordeal of Abrehet (name changed) that began shortly after the start of the war in November 2020. Her 16-year-old daughter was killed at home by members of Fano militia from the neighboring Amhara region who swiftly moved to occupy western Tigray. Subsequently, her husband and three of her children fled the area, leaving Abrehet with her remaining three children, one of whom a five-year-old girl behind. In the middle of the war, Abrehet had to witness the heartbreaking loss of her little girl and endure an inhumane treatment at the hands of her assailants in front of her children.

Although Abrehet has since received medical attention for her physical wounds at Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekelle, addressing her psychological trauma remained untouched. Despite initially taking prescribed medication for her mental health, financial constraints forced her to discontinue the treatment.

In a conversation with Addis Standard inside Mekelle 70 camp for IDPs, Abrehet described her painful experiences, surrounded by other women who had also suffered similar sexual violence at the hands of armed men in western Tigray.

Dr Simon Gebretsadik, Coordinator of Services for Victims of Sexual Violence at the Tigray Health Bureau, told Addis Standard that the extensive number of victims of sexual violence are seeking healthcare assistance in a region where 80% of facilities are destroyed, presenting a profound obstacle for survivors to access the necessary treatment. As a result, comprehending the true scope and status of these victims has become a challenging endeavor.

The primary challenge facing the regional health bureau relates to the lack of proactive initiatives and outreach campaigns designed to encourage women to report cases of sexual violence to healthcare facilities.”

Dr Simon

A recent report published by the World Health Organization (WHO) discloses that an alarming 86% of the 853 health service delivery units in Tigray have endured varying degrees of structural damage, while 71% of medical equipment remain partially nonfunctional. It also reveals the destruction of 28 health facilities and health equipment in 232 facilities that are completely unusable.

The primary challenge facing the regional health bureau relates to the lack of proactive initiatives and outreach campaigns designed to encourage women to report cases of sexual violence to healthcare facilities. This is further compounded by other prevailing circumstances in the region, such as systemic hurdles to impede the complete return of health professionals to their workplaces, mirroring challenges seen across various sectors in the region, said Dr Simon.

Although the regional health bureau has embarked on taking various initiatives, its efforts are insufficient. Among the total victims of sexual violence, the number of those who seek healthcare are limited, and those who do are confronted with inadequate financing. This in tern contributes to hampering the provision of comprehensive treatment, including the lack of fundamental resources within safe houses situated in Mekelle, Adigrat, and Shire, which are crucial for the recuperation of victims, according to Dr Simon.

While multiple sectors should ideally collaborate to provide support, the [lack of the full] implementation of the peace agreement has unfortunately contributed to the failure in alleviating the plight of the victims. “Instead, sexual violence has escalated in areas under the control of Eritrean and Amhara forces, exacerbating the already dire situation,” said Simon.

This escalation has also significantly increased the adverse effects on individuals who were already in the process of healing from previous traumatic experiences on their own. Although various sectors plan to contribute and address these challenges, the current situation in Tigray continues to pose substantial obstacles, “hindering meaningful intervention and support,” Dr Simon says.

Physical traumas, depression, suicidal attempts, emotional change, unwanted pregnancy, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), and HIV infection were the most common consequences of the SGBV reported

A recent research published on BMJ global health revealed that sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) was highly prevalent during the first 8 months of the war in the Tigray region. Almost 10% of the girls and women of reproductive age interviewed were sexually abused, mostly by rape. Gang rape was the most common and frequent form of sexual violence. Physical and psychological forms of violence were common too, the research said. Underage girls, elder women, and men were also victims of sexual and physical violence. Physical traumas, depression, suicidal attempts, emotional change, unwanted pregnancy, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), and HIV infection were the most common consequences of the SGBV reported.

Around 90% of the survivors of sexual violence have not received medical care or psychological care because most health facilities were destroyed and/or looted. Urgent survivor center approaches with medical and psychological service; and sustained community support were among the recommended approaches to reduce the lifelong impact on the behavioral, emotional, sexual, social, and economic fortunes of SGBV victims.

But for victims of this horrific sexual violence in Kolla Temben, in IDP camps and throughout the rest of Tigray, turning to the use of holy waters in search of a healing is what is available at their disposal. AS

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