Around thirty per cent of girls in The Comoros become child brides, and they make up the vast majority of sexual violence cases reported across the African country.
Tackling this scourge was the theme of a recent UN event held during the opening session of the General Assembly, at which senior officials called for measures to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes.
“I followed him into the house. I didn’t know he was going to rape me.” At just 13 years old, Mariama (not her real name) was sexually assaulted by a neighbour when she returned home from school: Nine months later, still a child herself, she became a mother. “At 16, I have a daughter who is almost one and a half years old.”
Around 17 per cent of women in the Comoros have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence in their lives, and more than 30 per cent of girls are married while they are still children.
Most cases of violence are reported by young girls, says Said Ahamed Said, from the Comoros Ministry of Health: “Last year we received 173 reports of sexual violence, of which 162 were against young girls under age 17.”
But, given the social norms in The Comoros, and women’s economic vulnerability, the official figures are believed to be just the tip of the iceberg.
It is considered taboo for a woman to report violence and, as long as she still shares the home with the man involved, she will rarely come forward.
“The woman often don’t have a source of income, and when a man divorces a woman, he doesn’t take care of the children anymore”, explained Mr. Said. “There are no social services to manage such cases, nor places where they can find shelter”.
Listening and protecting
Despite the challenges, the UN is committed to ending all forms of violence against women and girls in the Comoros.
The UN reproductive health agency, UNFPA, has set up a toll-free hotline that survivors can call for help and information about receiving medical and legal assistance, and supports the Listening and Protection Service for Children and Women Victims of Violence, in the capital city, Moroni.
The Service also provides midwifery and contraceptive services, post-rape care and screenings for sexually-transmitted infections, as well as referrals to hospitals. Since 2021 a psychologist has also been deployed to help women and girls who have been left to take care of their families alone.
Since the Service began, around 17 years ago, awareness of the issue of sexual violence has grown in The Comoros, says Mr. Said, and women and girls are more likely to report attacks than they were before it opened.
After her attack Mariama, determined to seek help and justice, received medical and legal assistance from the centre, and staff supported her as the case made its way through the courts after the man’s arrest.
‘Most perpetrators never face responsibility’
The sense of urgency in ensuring accountability for sexual violence was stressed at a recent side event to the 77th UN General Assembly, which emphasized the need to focus on survivors’ needs and rights above all.
“The survivor-centred approach we promote is about listening to survivors, treating them with dignity, and advocating for a response centred on their needs and wishes,” said UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem.
“Very few have access to justice, and most perpetrators never face responsibility for their crimes. Such impunity silences the survivors and emboldens the perpetrators.”
Ms. Kanem described sexual violence as a “global emergency that demands our full commitment, collaboration and mobilization.”
“Sexual violence is not inevitable,” she said. “We cannot allow it to become normalized in any way”.
For Mariama, justice was frustratingly short lived: Her rapist was released after serving just one year in jail. “I still see him in our neighbourhood, but I always stay away or change my route. If he tries to talk to me, I will not answer,” she said.
Although she fears being attacked again, she is defiant. “My focus now is my education: I want to become a lawyer.”
Mariama wants to stand up for herself and for others, especially her daughter. “I want her to be able to better defend herself, and other young girls who may suffer any form of abuse.”