A Tigrayan woman refugee in Sudan. Photo: UNFPA
By Zelalem Takele @ZelalemTak11163 &
Mihret G/kristos @MercyG_kirstos
Addis Abeba – On 09 November 2020, Selam (name changed for her protection) from the town of Humera, Western Tigray, embarked on the most terrifying journey of her life. The war which erupted between Ethiopian government forces and the Tigrayan fighters had already plagued her hometown separating her from her husband. With her three children, she abandoned the security of their refuge and fled to a nearby valley, entering the throes of war. The relentless rumble of heavy artillery served as their haunting lullaby. Each footstep was a risky gamble, every moment a struggle for survival.
Three days later, on 12 November, Selam returned to the town in the pursuit of closure for her husband’s fate, but she fell into a trap. After days of frantic search, a militant offered to give her an authorization letter to locate her husband’s remains, but she found herself imprisoned with numerous other women instead. Hours later, the man isolated Selam and violated her, not just once but twice. Despite her harrowing experience, Selam managed to return to her children, bearing a heartache no one should endure.
Selam’s ordeal serves as a painful testament to the deeper wounds inflicted by the Tigray war on girls and women.
Accounts of ‘rape as a strategy of war’ in the context of the Tigray region also included documented patterns of ‘sexual slavery.’
According to the UN, from November 2020 through June 2021 alone, “a total of 2,204 survivors reported sexual violence to health facilities across the Tigray region” – a chilling statistic that barely scratches the surface of the innumerable stories drowned in the silence of societal stigma. “It is important to keep in mind that these figures are an underestimation of the true extent of gender-based violence being committed,” said the UN human rights experts at the time.
“Rape is a strategy of war – it is meant to destroy women and communities physically and mentally”, said the 2018 Nobel Laureate, Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynaecologist celebrated for his work with survivors of sexual assault in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In June 2021, the UNFPA corroborated Dr. Mukwege’s account as applicable in the Tigray region saying that “sadly, this destruction has become a daily reality for women and girls in Tigray in northern Ethiopia.”
Accounts of “rape as a strategy of war,” in the context of the Tigray region also included documented patterns of ‘sexual slavery.’
Adding to the grim situation, although to a lessor extent, is what women and girls in the Amhara and Afar regions have witnessed as part of a wave of gender-based violence after Tigrayan fighters took the war to the regions. According to Amnesty International, 70 women have reported being assaulted by forces loyal to the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) in just a span of nine days in Nefas Mewcha in August 2021. Moreover, a deep healthcare crisis, exacerbated by the conflict’s fallout on health facilities in Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions, has severely hampered comprehensive aftercare for girls and women victims of sexual assault.
Despite Gender Based Violence (GBV) being one of the characteristics of the war, traumatizing thousands of girls and women, many argue that voices condemning the assault and calling for justice and accountability among other measures were not commensurate, becoming a deeply disturbing setback for the country’s feminist movement and women’s rights activism.
“It’s a painful betrayal of the principles feminists stand for, a significant failure to the women on the frontlines of this conflict.”
Hewan Areaya, an intersectional feminist and co-founder of Siiqqee scholars, an initiative focusing on women’s rights and female empowerment through education, recounts with disappointment how it has been disheartening to see some respected feminists justify the extensive sexual violence perpetrated throughout this conflict. This, Hewan warns, was a stark departure from the core values of feminism. Women from all regions who have been victims of this war, she observes, required solidarity and support, not justifications for their suffering. “It’s a painful betrayal of the principles feminists stand for,” Hewan notes, “a significant failure to the women on the frontlines of this conflict.”
Nevertheless, Hewan also contends that addressing the Tigray crisis and the widespread violence against women and children is a complex endeavor, not subject to simplistic solutions or hasty criticism. “The climate of conflict has made vocal advocacy a privilege that not everyone can afford,” Hewan states, alluding to instances where voicing opposition to the violence was perceived as treason, leading to severe consequences.
Hanna Lemma, a feminist researcher and co-founder of Addis Powerhouse, a feminist media outlet expands on this point. She argues that the precarious security climate and hostile political environment has led to a scenario where advocacy for women’s rights is either silenced or taken out of context to imply political affiliation with opposing groups or the government. This politicization, Hanna observes, not only obstructed active women’s groups but also rendered social media advocacy perilous for those lacking the safety of anonymity.
Yet, she also recalls instances of women’s rights organizations and individual feminist advocates in Ethiopia speaking out against the war, organizing or participating in peace calls, and facilitating humanitarian support for groups, particularly women and children, directly affected by the war.
Echoing Hanna’s observations, Sehin Teferra, the co-founder of Setaweet, a prominent Ethiopian feminist network aiming to inspire a paradigm shift towards gender equality, acknowledges while it may not seem like enough has been done, women’s rights advocacy groups and CSOs have taken meaningful action. As evidence, she points out that Setaweet and CARD were among the pioneer organizations advocating for peace on the eve of the Ethiopian New Year of 2015. When the war ended and travel to the region was permitted, Sihen notes that 62 CSO leaders immediately journeyed there to assess the situation and formulate a project plan.
Sihen also warns against fostering a culture of criticism instead of contribution, pointing to the activities of CSOs in the aftermath of the war. She reveals how Setaweet has directed all its projects to the Tigray region and has already begun providing trauma counseling training.
The informants however, noted that the Ethiopian feminist movement and women’s rights advocates’ scant response to the sexual assaults committed against girls and women during the war in Northern Ethiopia should not be seen as an isolated case but within the context of the wider challenges facing the women’s question in the country.
Although no structured feminist movement existed historically in Ethiopia, Sehin articulates that there are clear traces of it dating back to the 1930’s. Evidence of women’s organization can also be discovered within the student movements of the 1960’s, and even within the Tigray People’s Liberation Front during its struggle in 1970’s and 80’s, she noted.
Hewan acknowledges the remarkable strides made so far with regard to gender parity, particularly underlining notable advancements in legislation, including the 1995 constitution that fortified women’s rights, family law provisions that instituted marital equality, and property law amendments that accorded women equal property rights.
Hewan emphasizes the influential role of steadfast advocates, often labeled as ‘tradition disruptors,’ such as Meaza Ashenafi and her team, who have etched an indelible mark and paved the way for the rights we often take for granted today
Yet, despite these notable milestones, challenges persist. Hanna emphasizes that Ethiopia is approximately a century away from achieving gender equality, as indicated by the 2022 Global Gender Gap Report. Hanna additionally sheds light on the resistance to change among certain women, which she attributes to internalized misogyny, societal norms
Charting the Future
The feminist movement in Ethiopia has historically, Sehin contends, been marginalized, eclipsed by other pressing issues, and at times, co-opted during the Derg and EPRDF regimes. She observes that the current approach under the Prosperity Party leans towards mere tokenism, an attempt to portray gender balance without initiating genuine transformation.
More troubling, Sehin notes, is the role women themselves have played in this shift. She suggests that many women have internalized their subordinate status and have become enamored by other causes, such as political struggles. This diverts their energy away from advocating for gender equality, hence impeding the progression of women’s rights in the country.
Yet, the protracted conflict in Tigray and the ensuing violence, argues Sihin, have made one thing clear: women must first identify themselves as such, lest the progress achieved becomes susceptible to regression. The substantial reduction in the women’s representation in the most celebrated Prime Minister Abiy’s previously 50% female cabinet underscores this, a change that Sihin asserts was inherently transient as it was imposed from the top rather than being a grassroots transformation.
However, Sehin posits that if similar changes threatened the representation of any ethnic or national group in the country, they would not be met with silence. From this, she extrapolates a crucial lesson: women need to proactively organize and foster unity and awareness among themselves.
Hewan concurs, positing that women’s rights are inherently political and must be integrated into Ethiopia’s mainstream discourse, not relegated behind other pressing concerns. She further observes that many women embody multiple identities – gender and ethnic background – so ethnic violence and upheaval disproportionately affect them.
In this vein, Hewan believes there’s potential to harmonize women’s rights concerns with other political issues. “Ethiopian politics,” she states, “needs to better integrate women’s issues into broader dialogues. In all decisions, from ethnic tensions to peace processes, women’s voices and concerns should be included and prioritized.”
Hanna concurs, she argues that there is a clear need to build solidarity within the movement, so that even in times of oppression that limits freedom of expression, we could always stand together and have the agency to speak up for women. In this context, she invites all to reflect on the essence of being a feminist, issuing a clarion call for solidarity and resilience: “To be a feminist is to have a voice, to claim your space in this world, and to stand up for those who have been deliberately silenced,” she states. AS