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NGAZIDJA, Moroni, Comoros – After school, Mariama* was invited over one day by a man who was well known in the neighbourhood. “I followed him into his house. I did not know that he was going to rape me,” she says.

Her eyes tear up as she describes the ordeal that left her pregnant, and adds, “I have a daughter who is one and a half years old now.”

The rape was another of life’s blows for Mariama. Orphaned at the tender age of six when her mother died, she has never known her father. Originally from Madagascar, she and her younger siblings moved in with their aunt in Moroni.

I followed him into his house. I did not know that he was going to rape me.

Mariama has to face her rapist in the streets, as he was imprisoned but released after serving only a year behind bars. © UNFPA Comoros

Getting pregnant after being raped would be daunting for anyone, but it is even more so for a child. Mariama has braved her ordeal thanks to the support of the Listening and Protection Service for Children and Women Victims of Violence.

“My aunt heard about the centre from a friend and brought me here,” she says. She received medical and legal support, and the perpetrator was imprisoned for his crime but released after one year in jail. This has left the young woman fearful.

“I still see him in our neighbourhood, but I always stay away or change my road. If he tries to talk to me, I will not answer,” she says.

Mariama’s focus is now on her education. She hopes to become a lawyer, to be able to defend girls who are abused. 

Rebuilding lives

Predominantly Muslim, Comoros is made up of four small islands and has a population of about three-quarters of a million people. It is characterized by strong cultural, religious and customary practices – like child marriage and inheritance rights – that negatively affect women and girls, and promote gender-based violence.

Victims of such practices and other forms of violence regularly seek support from the Service for Listening and Protection of Children and Women Victims of Violence. A majority of reported cases are of girls, as explained by the Director General of Social Affairs, Said Ahamed Said.

“The maltreatment of women and girls is quite frequent. For instance, in 2021, we received 173 cases of sexual violence against women and girls, of whom 162 were girls aged 17,” he says. However, this may only be the tip of the iceberg, as many women face economic violence related to the non-payment of family allowance in cases of divorce, which is quite common.

We have received material support from UNFPA to help these women and also the deployment by UNFPA of a psychologist.

“When a man divorces a woman, he does not take care of the children any more. In the last four years, we have received material support from UNFPA to help these women and also since 2021, the deployment by UNFPA of a psychologist.”

Although the centre has been doing awareness raising, many women who experience beatings, discrimination and rape within the family do not report these cases for fear of separation.

“It is considered taboo for a woman to report violence. Even if she is beaten, as long as she still shares the home with the man, she will hardly come forth. These women do not have a source of revenue and there are no social services in the country to manage such cases, or where these women can run to for shelter. That is why we are hoping that donors can support the setting up of a space to shelter these women beyond the counsel we give,” Mr Said says.

According to the 2012 EDS-MICS survey, 17 per cent of women in the Comoros have experienced at least one incident of violence since the age of 15, or experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives.

“Our objective is sensitising the population on the different forms of violence. And after 17 years of this centre's existence, it is encouraging to see that people are becoming more conscious now and they can denounce violence, compared to how things were before," says Mr Said.

UNFPA’s work to end violence against women and girls

UNFPA has been working with the government through the National Commission for Gender and Civil Society, and in recent years with the Service, to end all forms of violence against women and girls. Initiatives supported by UNFPA to reduce gender-based violence range from strengthening the capacity of the different entities working in this field and supporting the functioning of the toll-free number to enable survivors speak up.

* Name changed to protect her identity.