On the frontline against sexual violence in Zanzibar are four incredible women, dedicated to protecting women and girls who are vulnerable to abuse. Meet the police sergeant, the women's rights activist, the lawyer and the ActionAid shelter coordinator who are supporting survivors of sexual violence and helping to bring their attackers to justice.
The police sergeant
Mwaka Ali Haji is a police sergeant in Zanzibar. She works on the gender desk, and her role is to deal with gender issues related to violence against women and children.
“Often I see children who have been abused, children whose rights have been violated or children who have been abandoned and they don’t have anywhere to go," she says.
Mwaka, 47, received ActionAid training on how to deal sensitively with cases of domestic violence. If a vulnerable girl comes to the police station, it's Mwaka’s job to listen to her testimony and make her feel safe and secure. After making a report, she refers the case to the local social welfare officer, who may take her to ActionAid’s shelter for women and girls.
"It’s very important to have a woman on the Gender Desk so that she’s able to support and assist her fellow women," she says.
But stigma around sexual and domestic violence often means that victims refuse to testify against their attackers, making it very difficult for Mwaka and her team to put offenders in jail. To combat this issue the police regularly hold discussions with local communities around women’s rights and the laws that are there to protect women and children from harm.
It’s very important to have a woman on the Gender Desk so that she’s able to support and assist her fellow women.
“Some parents will tell their children, “No, you shouldn’t testify because then the case will proceed to court and whoever did that may be imprisoned," explains Mwaka. "We train the community to understand the whole issue around violence against women.”
Mwaka has seen the positive impact of her work in the community. "There used to be very serious incidents of violence against women and children, but after the gender desk was introduced these cases have been reduced,” she says.
The women's rights activist
Hadia Ali Makame, 50, knows the danger that she faces on a daily basis as a women's rights activist in Zanzibar. Her colleague was murdered with a machete for standing up to violence against women.
But despite the risks, she refuses to give up. “I’m frightened of being attacked,” she says. “But my work inspires me. I want to help as many girls as I can.”
“There’s a particular case that really moved me, of two girls who were raped by their uncle several times. There was no progress on the case so I decided to take action. These girls had received no medical attention – they were in a terrible state. I helped them get to the ActionAid shelter, where they were looked after.”
Hadia works closely with local communities. “When I started working for ActionAid I visited every community, telling girls that if they encounter violence we can help them," she says. “When I talk to girls I tell them about their rights. I tell them they have a right to go to school, to be protected, the right to be heard. I tell girls that they have the right to be loved just like boys.”
I tell girls that they have the right to be loved just like boys
Hadia explains that when she helps one girl, it gives her the motivation and encouragement she needs to continue her work. "I feel if I’ve helped this one and the case has been successful, then I should keep on doing this for other girls."
Siti Abas, 34, is a lawyer who specialised in standing up for the rights of women and children. “A lot of women here experience violence," she says. "I offer free legal advice and provide legal documents. If a woman or child needs to go to court I will represent them at no cost.”
In addition to her pro bono legal work, she also offers advice on the radio. “With ActionAid we run a radio program about children’s rights," she explains. "People from rural areas call up and ask questions and we tell people about the laws which protect women and children.”
A lot of women here experience violence.
Providing this invaluable service brings challenges and dangers. “This is a difficult job because we are volunteers, we don’t get paid," she says. "Also, when I visit the police station I might run into a perpetrator – he knows I am going to prosecute him so often he will try to hurt me. My family fear for my safety. But I know this is important work – so I carry on.”
The ActionAid shelter coordinator
Aisha, 55, is the ActionAid shelter coordinator in Zanzibar - but the girls call her Mamma. In the past three years she has supported more than 50 girls to overcome their ordeal.
“Sometimes the girls arrive with nothing, just the clothes on their backs. Sometimes they want to die," she says. But through a combination of one-to-one counselling and Aisha’s gentle care, these traumatised girls start to open up to her.
“We listen to their story and then we can go to the police, report the crime and maybe we can catch the person who did it. It’s hard for girls to go to court on their own. Zanzibar is small, everyone knows each other. Maybe the policeman is related to the perpetrator. So we help girls to be witnesses.”
Aisha is there to offer all the practical support she can, but her role goes far beyond attending court hearings and hospital check-ups. “The girls at the shelter are like my own children. Some of the girls are very small. We have to give them lots of love because of the terrible things that have happened to them,” she says.
And when the girls feel ready to leave the shelter, Aisha and the shelter team makes sure that they are happy and settled, by doing home visits and making sure that they are attending school.
The girls at the shelter are like my own children.
Aisha is completely dedicated to the shelter, and the girls that she supports. “I love my job, to make these girls laugh and be happy despite their difficulties.”
No girl should face violence or abuse, which is why we're proud to work alongside incredible women like Mwaka, Hadia, Siti and Aisha in Zanzibar. You can help support our work with vulnerable girls by giving a regular gift to ActionAid. Please donate now, and help keep girls safe from harm.
Photo credit: Rachel Palmer/ActionAid