By Kizito Makoye
ZANZIBAR, Tanzania (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - - Natasha Ali was devastated when she realized the man accused of snatching her 14-year-old daughter off a street in Zanzibar and raping her had been freed for lack of evidence.
Her daughter was grabbed as she strolled through an area in Mkunazini in the old part of Zanzibar in May last year, dragged to an unoccupied ruin and raped.
Police arrested a man who was transferred to a remand prison while police prepared a case against him but he was later released without charge due to a lack of evidence, an outcome too often the case, according to women's rights activists.
"I knew in the end justice would not be done for my daughter who has suffered untold psychological torture," Ali, 42, who works in seaweed harvesting, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in Zanzibar.
In Tanzania almost half of women under age 50 say they have been physically or sexually assaulted and government figures suggest one in three girls under 18 experience sexual violence and 70 percent physical violence but few go to the police.
Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago off the coast of East Africa, has one of the highest rates of violence against women in Tanzania, according to women's rights advocacy group, the Tanzania Media Women's Association (TAMWA).
But a TAMWA study in 2014 found men committing sex crimes often walked free through lack of evidence and because victims refused to testify to avoid the shame and stigma attached to rape and police ill-equipped to deal with such cases.
RISING WAVE OF ASSAULTS
Zanzibar has started to roll out gender and children desks in all police stations in Unguja and Pemba islands as part of a broader government policy to curb the rising wave of sexual assaults against women and children, officials said.
These gender desks, the first to be introduced in the islands popular with foreign tourists, are special units in each police station consisting of a reception, interview and counseling room, rest area and an office where victims can report cases of physical and sexual abuse to trained police.
At Bububu police station, in Zanzibar's urban west district, the recently launched gender desk is attracting some abuse victims who are now willing to report their experiences, officials said.
Rahma Khamis, an official in the directorate of women and children in the Zanzibar government, said the gender desks were part of a government commitment to protect women and children. Others have opened in Malindi, Kijito Upele, Madema, Mazizini and Wete police stations.
"Having a police gender and children desk is an achievement, but we all need to stand against the problem," Khamis said at the recent launch of the Bububu Gender and Children desk.
"Are we happy to see our children abused? Are we ready to see our family members traumatized? Certainly not. We need to protect women and children."
The initiative, which has received $3.2 million (3 million euros) from the European Union, aims to improve women and children rights by providing training and necessary support to the police force.
"I think more women will have a lot of confidence reporting cases of abuse to women police since they have been trained to specially handle such cases," said Ali.
A culture of shame and silence currently engulfing communities in Unguja and Pemba has made it difficult to measure the prevalence of violent assaults against women and children, women's rights groups said.
A 21-year-old woman, who came to Zanzibar as a teenager in 2012 to work as a domestic maid in the Kiembe Samaki area is planning to file a complaint at Malindi police gender desk against a former boss whom she claims sexually abused her.
"The working conditions were so harsh. At some point my boss was forcing me to have sex with him, but when I refused he sacked me without paying me," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in Zanzibar.
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Leslie Gevirtz)