From darkness to hope: surviving sexual abuse

In Moldova, a specialized shelter protects and supports children who have experienced violence

By: Anush Babajanyan and Melanie Sharpe
UNICEF/UN0214402/Babajanyan VII Photo

23 November 2018

Liza* is one of the millions of adolescent girls around the world who will experience violence in their lifetimes. But the abuse she and her mother suffered wasn’t the end of the story. With the support of a shelter for victims of abuse – and their own strength and determination – they are now safe, and hopeful for a better future.

To mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, UNICEF is sharing the story of Liza and her mother Silvia*, a family in Moldova, and how they are overcoming the scars of violence and abuse.

UNICEF/UN0214470/Babajanyan VII Photo

Silvia, a mother of three children works at a local shop, doing 16-hour shifts for two days in a row, has two days off, then works for two days, and so on.

This is one of Silvia’s days off.

“I didn’t have a childhood, I started working so early. Maybe other kids were also working, but they were much older,” she says. “I very much wanted to go to school, I would imagine having a backpack and handing flowers to a teacher.”

Silvia was born into a poor family and was forced to drop out of school when she was 9 years old to work. She says there was a lot of violence in her house as a child, and she was expected to help support the family.

At age 15 Silvia refused to hand over the money she had earned picking fruit to her mother, so her mother told her she had to leave the house.

UNICEF/UN0214369/Babajanyan VII Photo
Silvia looks at a picture drawn by youngest daughter Lillia* at their home in Moldova.

Silvia got married when she was 16 years old. She got pregnant with her first child, daughter Liza, at the age of 17.

“It was very difficult. I remember in the maternity when they put the baby in my arms and I thought what do I do with this creature? They taught me to breastfeed at the hospital and my neighbour helped me – teaching me to bathe the baby, how to hold her head, how to wrap her in blankets,” she says.

Silvia had two more children, daughter Lillia and son Vlad. She says that similar to the home she grew up in, her husband was extremely violent and abusive.

“I feared him, but I also feared for my children not growing up with a father like I did,” she says.

UNICEF/UN0214454/Babajanyan VII Photo
Silvia braids her daughter Liza’s hair while Lillia looks on at their home in Moldova.

With tears dripping down her face, Silvia explains that a year ago she found out that her husband had sexually abused Liza.

She says the day started off normal. She got her daughters ready for school and went to work. Her neighbor helped take care of the girls after school. When Silvia called her in the afternoon to check-in,  the neighbor said the girls were not yet home.

“Then Liza called me: ‘mom come home quickly, please come home now.’ I asked the neighbor what was going on. And she told me that my daughter has been raped,” recalls Silvia.

UNICEF/UN0214407/Babajanyan VII Photo
Liza and her younger sister Lillia walk outside together close to their home.

Once Silvia returned home she immediately phoned the police.

In addition to beginning a criminal investigation the police immediately reached out to social workers at an emergency shelter in Moldova’s capital city Chisinau.

Liza was placed at the shelter for 45 days, where she was seen by a medical doctor and offered social and psychological assistance, including psycho-social support.  Silvia visited her often, and the shelter provided free legal support to both mother and daughter.

UNICEF/UN0214446/Babajanyan VII Photo.
Liza speaks to a social worker while visiting the shelter, several months after she had stayed there.

The shelter in Chisinau is the only one of its kind in Moldova. It opened in 2001 and is currently run by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Social Protection.

In 2016, with the support of UNICEF, a specialized children’s wing opened: it is well documented that here are close connections between intimate partner violence and violence against children. They share many of the same causes, patterns and consequences, and often happen at the same time, and in the same households.

The shelter supports women and children – including mothers and children together - who have experienced, or are at risk of experiencing, domestic violence and abuse and trafficking. 

There is very limited information on the number of cases of violence against children in Moldova, however, during the academic year 2016 to 2017 teachers and school managers reported almost 11,000 cases of abuse or violence against children.

Liza speaks to Psychologist Rodica Moraru at the shelter.

Rodica Moraru has worked as a psychologist at the shelter for over a year and worked closely with Liza during her stay.

“She [Liza] came with post-traumatic stress, and of course this influenced her physical health,” says Moraru. “The neurologist prescribed medication to deal with her fear and anxiety.”

For the professionals who work at the shelter, Liza and her mother are a positive case. Without support, abuse can severely affect a child, particularly when family members do not believe the child. Moraru says she is working on one case where a girl was abused by her brother in law, and the family blames the girl.

“It’s very important that Liza’s mother believed her,” Moraru says. “When in counselling I explain to the child they have no guilt in what happened. In our society there is a mindset that maybe it’s the victim’s fault for the skirt they were wearing. If the child understands it is not their fault, it’s easier for them to move on.”

UNICEF/UN0214365/Babajanyan VII Photo
Liza draws a picture while visiting the shelter.

“A child that doesn’t get support may be more likely to be sexually active at a young age, experience unwanted pregnancy, become a victim of human trafficking or prostitution,” says Moraru.

She is very hopeful for Liza, although she can see the effects of the abuse: “She is very mature for her age and she feels responsible for her siblings. My instinct tells me Liza will be ok and that she will overcome this.  She went through the crisis period very fast.”

UNICEF/UN0214383/Babajanyan VII Photo
Liza and mom Silvia walk hand in hand near their home. Liza is now back living with her mother and siblings.

Every woman or child who stays in the shelter receives a specialized assistance plan including when they return to their communities, and so did Liza.

She now says she likes sports, playing with her friends and taking photos of her family’s pets and farm animals. She says she is thankful for the time she spent at the shelter and the support she received:

“I liked being at the shelter. I miss the educators who worked with me and took care of me. They made me active – what I mean is more happy and positive, when I laugh a lot. I can imagine for the educators how they must feel at the shelter when they see how much better they make children feel. I want to feel the same way as them.

Liza also has dreams for the future. “I want to be an anatomist, or a physical training teacher, or something related to helping children.”

UNICEF/UN0214488/Babajanyan VII Photo
Silvia, Liza, Lillia and Vlad walk with friends close to home. Silvia says that she is hopeful her children will have a better life than her.

Silvia is also hopeful that her children’s lives will change for the better.

“For my girls it’s a priority to get an education, have a profession, earn their own money and not have to depend on their husbands. I would like all three of my children to find love and happiness, I want them to be honest with me, I want them to wait to get married.”


*All names have been changed in this story to protect the identify of those involved.



Worldwide, around 15 million adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 have experienced sexual abuse in their lifetime. This abuse happens in every region of the world, in every community. 

Although children of every age are susceptible - adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to this horrific violation of children’s rights.

Across Europe and Central Asia, UNICEF works with partners to prevent and end all forms of violence against children in communities, in schools and in their homes.

Learn more about UNICEF’s work protecting children against violence and promoting the rights of women and girls.