Creating safe and empowering public spaces for women and girls


Hawassa City, in Sidama region of Ethiopia, is known as a tourist destination and a weekend getaway. The city, located 273 Kms away in the South of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, also hosts a sizable young female workforce working at textile factories based in Hawassa Industry Park.

A 2019 assessment showed that there is a high number of Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls (SVAWG) cases registered in the city, prompting UN Women Ethiopia to pilot the “Safe City and Safe Public Spaces with Women and Girls" programme. This UN Women flagship programme aims to create safe and empowering public spaces for women and girls free from sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence. The programme aims to do this through the implementation of evidence-based, comprehensive, and coordinated prevention and response strategies including capacity-strengthening initiatives in collaboration with local government stakeholders, CSOs, and faith-based institutions.

Under the leadership of the Hawassa City Administration, a multi sectoral partnership was established through a safe city and safe public spaces advisory group constituting 17 government offices, CSOs and faith-based organizations to coordinate the SVAWG prevention and response work in the city. The group also serves as a consultative body for the implementation of the initiative and a platform to enhance learning, ownership, and accountability.

According to Tesfaye Abebe, Directorate Director at Hawassa City Administration and advisory group chair, the formation of the coordinating body has brought changes in the overall violence against women and girls (VAWG) prevention and response in the city. Previously, VAWG prevention work was done by organizations but not in a coordinated manner. There are now well-coordinated efforts with 17 organizations coming together, signing Memoranda of Understanding, and committing to mainstream the work. The programme helped to strengthen ongoing individual organization efforts as it created ownership and better coordination.

Tesfaye Abebe, Directorate Director at Hawassa City Administration, who  also is chairing Leading the safe city and safe public spaces advisory group Steering Committee for Safe City Project, the formation of the body has brought changes in the overall GBV response in the city. Photo: UN Women/Bethlehem Negash
Tesfaye Abebe, Directorate Director at Hawassa City Administration, who also is leading the safe city and safe public spaces advisory group Steering Committee for Safe City Project, the formation of the body has brought changes in the overall GBV response in the city. Photo: UN Women/Bethlehem Negash

“The coordination platform caused SVAWG cases to be handled in a better way, because there is good referral linkage between the Police, Bureau of Women and Social Affairs, Bureau of the Attorney General, health facilities, and safe houses where SVAWG is getting the attention it deserves. Attempts to avoid facing justice by perpetrators such as involving negotiation with survivors and their families are now significantly reduced. I take this as a success of the project.” Tesfaye noted.

Another success of the Safe City Programme is the engagement of faith-based institutions in preventing and responding to SVAWG in Hawassa City.  Faith-based institutions in the Ethiopian context are very instrumental as they have a strong presence on the ground and a lot of influence among followers.  According to Megabi Haimanot Kesis (Reverend)] Netsanet Akleweg, Deputy Manager of the Sidama region Diocese at the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church (EOTC), a lot has changed in the 12 churches under the Diocese and its clergy’s teachings when it comes to breaking the taboo in discussing SVAWG happening in the church. This success is a result of the training the leaders of the church and members of the clergy got and the church’s membership in the coordination group.

“Before we took part in the program, it would have felt strange to talk about the different forms of SVAWG in the church setting. Members were externalizing the issue as if it wasn’t happening in the church. The feedback was mixed and a few members were not comfortable hearing it, but others were also glad that we have started to talk about this societal issue in the church.” Kesis Netsanet said.

Kesis Esayas Gebremedhin, Head of Debre Eyesus church under EOTC in Hawassa, noted that ”There was resistance from clergy in accepting that Violence Against Women is occurring in the church when we first start discussing it because it was something of a taboo. We had to bring up actual cases that have happened for them to start to believe it. Then they were trained on the issue, and they started to teach members of the congregation at all levels.”

“After being part of this program, I refused to engage in mediation that was requested mostly by the perpetrator's family so that the aggressor could elude legal consequences. I say I cannot get involved in this. It must be handled in the court.” Kesis Esayas said

Safe Cities Ethiopia

Ms. Senait Negash, one of the five leaders of the Women’s ministry at Hiwot Berhan Church in Hawassa, from the Evangelical denomination, also noted the project was vital for them to start talking about SVAWG in the church.

Ms. Senait Negash, one of the leaders of Women’s ministry at Hiwot Berhan Church in Hawassa. Photo: Bethlehem Negash/UN women
Senait Negash is one of the Women’s Ministry Leaders at the Hiwot Berhan Evangelical Church who pioneered breaking the silence around VAWG in church settings. Photo: UN Women/Bethlehem Negash

“Our service was only focused on spreading the gospel. Then we got training on VAWG and its consequences through the project. The training enabled us to recognize various forms of VAWG and realized it was happening in the church where girls and women suffered in silence. After being sensitized well, we as women leaders, wanted to work on VAWG in the church and hence took it to the leadership. It wasn’t easy, we were told we came to divide women and men in the church. We then were able to back our argument with evidence by identifying VAWG cases then we were welcomed to work on it. A critical success for us, I would say, is the Church’s increased commitment afterward, through allocating budget to do VAWG awareness training throughout the year.” Ms. Senait said.

“I am glad that now we developed that trust in the congregation that women and girls now have the confidence in coming to us and knowing there is someone that stood up for them. “She concluded

UN Women Ethiopia is implementing safe city and safe public spaces programmes in Addis Ababa and Hawassa as part of UN Women’s Safe Cities and Safe Public Places for Women and Girls Global Flagship Initiative. The programme created momentum in Hawassa city in the prevention of and response to sexual violence and other forms of violence against women and girls in public spaces through the engagement of the city administration, Bureau of Women and Social Affairs, education, transport, justice, health sector, faith-based organizations, and civil society organizations. The programme is implemented in partnership with Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) and local faith partners by integrating the existing structures and building the capacities of stakeholders including government, service providers, the transport sector, faith institutions, schools and universities, and the community at large to protect women and girls from all forms of SVAWG happening in public settings.

Yeshimebet Teklu, GBV Program Advisor at the Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) said: “We have engaged seven churches under the Evangelical structures; three catholic Parishes, and 12 churches under EOTC in Hawassa. They all work with their church leadership to mainstream SVAWG prevention in their spiritual teachings, curriculums, and existing structures. We gave them information and capacity-building support in VAWG prevention and response, they took it forward. They use every opportunity to spread VAWG messages including religious celebrations like Mesqel [the finding of true cross celebrated in Ethiopia with huge crowds coming out to Squares, registered by UNESCO as intangible heritage] by EOTC that involves thousands of followers to come out to celebrate, which contributes to the creation of safe and empowering public spaces in Hawassa city “

The initiative in Hawassa was initially supported by the Department for International Development (DFID) in 2019 and continued the implementations through the support from UN Women strategic note donors Government of the Netherlands, the Government of Norway, and the Government of Sweden as part of the broader EVAWG programme.