In-Depth AnalysisSocial Affairs

In-depth: Silent Suffering: Tales of gender-based violence echo across conflict hit Western Oromia

A growing contingent of female individuals domiciled within the conflict zones and internally displaced persons (IDP) centers of the Oromia region have become targets of gender-based violence (Photo: Addis Standard)

By Abdi Biyenssa @ABiyenssa

Addis Abeba – When the residents of the Jardega Jarte district within the Horro Guduru Wollega Zone of the Oromia region were compelled to evacuate their residences in pursuit of safety subsequent to what locals characterized as “an assault perpetrated by Fano” in September 2023, the trajectory of Hana Tadesse’s life (pseudonym) took an irreversibly adverse turn.

In the aftermath of the assault, Hana made the decision to seek refuge amidst the cornfields. However, ultimately, her acute hunger compelled her to emerge from concealment, consequently falling into the custody of the insurgent faction.

Subsequently, she endured a harrowing period of two months in captivity, during which she recounts enduring the abhorrent ordeal of gender-based violence, including the abominable crime of gang rape.

Hana was a mere 18 years old when she was abducted and subjected to the appalling ordeal of gender-based violence. Despite her release from captivity and the cessation of her harrowing circumstances after two months, the emotional and physical aftermath of the violence she endured continues to afflict her.

Following her liberation, Hana sought both physical and psychological treatment at Shambu Hospital. Regrettably, her condition remains unchanged, as her two-month captivity was characterized by a relentless onslaught of gender-based violence.

This traumatic experience has left a lasting imprint on her mental well-being and has precipitated the onset of epilepsy. Although superficially appearing to be in some semblance of physical health, Hana contends that she is far from normal.

“My sleepless nights are haunted by vivid memories of my tragic experiences,” she lamented. “The trauma has caused such severe memory loss that even the most basic details of my past elude me.”

Due to her family’s limited financial resources, she lacks the means to travel to Addis Abeba for advanced medical treatment. Consequently, Hana grapples incessantly with the debilitating effects of epilepsy, a condition that significantly impacts her daily life.

Merga Fekadu, a human rights lawyer and instructor at Wolkite University, asserts that gender-based violence is prevalent in crisis and conflict-ridden regions, with the ongoing strife in Oromia serving as a stark illustration of this pervasive trend.

He underscores that the Oromia region is embroiled in a multifaceted conflict involving various factions. “These include regional and federal armed forces, rebel organizations like the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), and militias affiliated with armed groups in Amhara region, such as the Fano,” Merga elaborates.

The human rights lawyer highlights that conflicts between rebel groups and government forces, along with confrontations among insurgents in border areas and adjacent territories between Oromia and the Amhara region, are also fraught with tensions and conflicts.

“Rape committed during armed conflicts is deemed a war crime, potentially subjecting perpetrators to international legal repercussions,” he stressed.

My sleepless nights are haunted by vivid memories of my tragic experiences.”

A victim of gender based violence

Tsion Getachew, a psychologist and social worker associated with an international humanitarian organization, contends that women residing in conflict zones suffer enduring and severe psychological consequences arising from rape and other instances of gender-based violence.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, sadness, and feelings of humiliation and powerlessness are among the symptoms commonly experienced by survivors of significant trauma,” she elucidates.

Experts stress that It is not only in conflict zones that girls and women are experiencing gender based violence. 

Tsion asserts that gender-based violence within internally displaced persons (IDP) camps presents a grave humanitarian concern, exacerbating the already dire circumstances faced by displaced populations.

“Rape and other forms of gender-based violence wield a profound and intricate psychological impact, particularly on women living in IDP camps,” she explains.

Stories from IDP centers      

Tision’s observation is substantiated by numerous instances of gender-based violence occurring within Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps situated in the Oromia region.

The poignant narrative of Rehima Ali (name altered for security concerns), a 32-year-old woman and mother of a nine-year-old child, serves as corroborating evidence.

During the previous year, Rehima’s life underwent a tragic upheaval when her husband became a casualty of an assault perpetrated by the Fano armed group while they were escaping from the Harar Jarso village in Amuru district of the Horro Guduru Wollega zone in September 2022.

During their journey, she recounted that the armed group killed her husband and left his body on the ground.

“Me and my child were forbidden from attending his funeral,” recalls Rehima. “Eventually, local government authorities intervened, overseeing the burial proceedings.”

Following this, she sought refuge alongside her child at an internally displaced persons (IDPs) center situated in the neighboring Jardega Jarte district of the Zone.

Nonetheless, her ordeal did not culminate with this relocation.

In November of 2023, Rehima was assaulted by a gang of men.

“At the time of the brutal gang rape, I was three months and fifty days pregnant,” she recalls.

Despite her pregnancy, the IDPs center where she still resides in lacks adequate provisions of food, sanitation facilities, and medical care.

As a consequence of the widespread destruction of private and public properties, encompassing residential structures, educational institutions, medical facilities, and essential public infrastructure, attributable to the conflict and incursions by armed factions, millions of individuals have been compelled to abandon their villages within the Oromia region, seeking refuge elsewhere.

Based on a recent assessment conducted by a humanitarian organization obtained by Addis Standard, it is estimated that approximately 1.4 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) currently inhabit 141 camps distributed across 11 zones and 96 districts within the Oromia region.

Of the total IDP population, 753,674 displaced individuals are located within the four zones of Western Oromia.

Addis Standard has been documenting the severe humanitarian crisis evident within IDP centers located in Western Oromia, notably in the East Wollega, West Wollega, Kellem Wollega, and Horo Guduru Wollega zones, where relief efforts are hindered by persistent security challenges.

Government-sponsored forced repatriations have further intensified the crisis, compelling IDPs to resort to street begging.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) accommodated in Gida town within the Gida Ayana district, situated in the East Wollega zone of the Oromia regional state, were compelled to endure dire circumstances, enduring inadequate provisions of food, water, and medical services for several months (Photo: Gida Ayana Communication Bureau)

The humanitarian crisis within IDP centers is exacerbated by the escalating occurrences of gender-based violence, including incidents of rape.

In addition to Rehima, Addis Standard conducted interviews with other victims residing in various IDP centers. Among them is a young woman named Aster Temesgen (a pseudonym used for her safety), who found herself compelled to abandon her familiar surroundings last year due to conflict.

Formerly a resident of Arro village situated in the Kiramu district of the East Wollega zone, Aster, aged 20, was pursuing her studies in the eleventh grade when escalating security concerns in her village forced her to flee her home.

Similar to Kiramu, other districts situated adjacent to the Amhara region, such as Abe Dongoro, Agemsa, Jardaga Jarte, and Amuru in the Horro Guduru Wollega Zone, as well as Gida Ayana and Gute in the East Wollega Zone, have been the epicenters of the displacements.

After the onset of conflict, Aster sought sanctuary at the former school, now repurposed as an internally displaced persons (IDP) center, in Shambu town, situated within the Horro Guduru Wollega Zone, alongside other displaced individuals from her village.

Three months subsequent to her arrival at the IDP center, however, Aster fell victim to a horrifying incident of rape.

Bearing months of intense suffering, Aster eventually made the painful choice to terminate her pregnancy upon recognizing the grave implications of her vulnerable state.

People familiar with the matter emphasized that the experience of women and girls such as Aster serves as a poignant reminder of the challenges encountered by those who are displaced from their homes due to violence and conflicts.

“Aster was left feeling profoundly unsafe following her rape, grappling with both emotional and physical repercussions,” Wakuma Hirpha, a former member of the IDP committee at the Shambu center elucidates. “This underscores the pressing need for the establishment of safeguards and support networks to ensure the well-being and safety of individuals affected by such circumstances.”

Wakuma notes that because men and women cohabited the same area within the IDP camp at Shambu, several women experienced sexual assault.

“Many women who were raped in the camp became pregnant and delivered their children there,” he noted. “Others opted for abortion in a hospital due to the health risks associated with pregnancy.”

Tsion underscores that meeting the needs of survivors of gender-based violence in conflict areas as well as in IDP centers requires a comprehensive, multi-sectoral approach.

Rape committed during armed conflicts is deemed a war crime, potentially subjecting perpetrators to international legal repercussions.”

Merga Fekadu, a human rights lawyer

“First and foremost, survivors require access to emergency medical care, including treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and emergency contraception,” notes the psychologist.

Tsion further emphasizes, “Support for mental health is also crucial, encompassing treatment and counseling to assist trauma survivors in managing their symptoms, processing their experiences, and rebuilding their resilience.”

“Second, community-based solutions are vital for fostering a positive atmosphere in IDP camps,” Tsion elucidates.

She provides further detail by stating, “Campaigns aimed at raising awareness, offering gender-based violence prevention and response training for camp personnel and residents, and establishing safe spaces where survivors can seek support and assistance without fear of shame or reprisal are all essential components of this approach.”

According to Marga, both domestic legislation and international human rights treaties unequivocally forbid rape and other forms of sexual violence. “These instruments encompass the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the protocols on the Rights of Women in Africa, and others,” he elaborates.

However, Marga underscores the government’s responsibility to prevent and safeguard women and girls from all manifestations of gender-based violence, including rape. “In addition to ratifying these treaties, Ethiopia must demonstrate its commitment to protecting women and girls from all forms of gender-based violence by effectively enforcing the laws.”

Merga contends that reinforcing legal procedures is crucial to holding offenders of gender-based violence in IDP camps accountable. “This involves establishing secure reporting channels, assisting survivors in accessing the legal system, and pursuing criminal charges against perpetrators,” he explains.

He also emphasizes that preventing gender-based violence in IDP camps should address systemic issues such as poverty, gender inequality, and societal norms that perpetuate violence.

Moreover, Merga asserts that conflict areas, including those within the Oromia region and elsewhere, are not receiving adequate attention from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) regarding the egregious abuses against women and children occurring there.

Concurring with Merga’s assertion, Tsion additionally underscores that addressing gender-based violence within Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps necessitates a coordinated, multi-sectoral approach involving affected communities, governmental bodies, civil society organizations, and humanitarian entities.

“Prioritizing the security, dignity, and well-being of survivors is paramount,” she argues. “We must strive to create environments where gender-based violence is not tolerated and where victims can access the assistance they need to heal and rebuild their lives.” AS

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