Author: Dunia Mekonnen Tegegn

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On Nov 3, 2020, a conflict out broke between the Tigray Liberation Front and the Ethiopian National Defense Force when the TPLF assaulted the Northern command. Due to the unfolding conflict, women were and have continued to be the victims of sexual abuse. The gender discrimination women are subjected to in their society before the conflict contributed to their victimization during the conflict. Even though the Ethiopian Constitution provides full and equal dignity with men, the reality of women’s lives is very different. Reports indicate that in the past four months, 108 cases of rape have been reported in Mekelle, Ayder, Adigrat, and Wukro hospitals.

In Ethiopia, the male is the acknowledged master of his family. Marriage is viewed as a means of strengthening the link between families and ethnic groups. Thus, the role of women in this society is that of cementing family ties through bride-wealth and producing children. The cultural perception of women as the property of men has led to a situation where warring factions use rape as a weapon. Researches discussing justice for women impacted by conflicts underline that women who survive rape experience trauma and are usually stigmatized by their own communities. As a result, many women could be reluctant to report rape.

The Tigray Conflict and Violations of Women’s Human Rights

The most authoritative gender-specific treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was ratified by Ethiopia in 1981.CEDAW defines discrimination against women to include gender-based violence; that is, violence directed against a woman because she is a woman, or that affects women excessively. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental, or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion, and other deprivations of liberty. In the context of the definition provided under article 1 of CEDAW, rape during conflict is discrimination against women.

Article 5 of CEDAW calls on state parties to take all measures to fight social and cultural patterns of men and women to eliminate social prejudice and stereotyped roles to protect women from the abuse of any kind that happens within the family, in work, and in the context of armed conflicts including through laws that implement protection from sexual violence and also by facilitating services to those who are subject to sexual violence. In addition to this, CEDAW is very specific, particularly as far as the government’s obligation to provide fully comprehensive services to contribute to gender equality and women’s empowerment. These services include medical and psychological treatment, and shelter for those who are subject to sexual violence.

The CEDAW Committee also affirmed that implicit in CEDAW and, in particular, article 2(c), is a right to an effective remedy. It explained that for a remedy to be effective, adjudication of a case involving rape should be dealt with in a fair, impartial, timely, and expeditious manner. In the context of the conflict in Tigrai, although non-state actors cannot become parties to CEDAW, the CEDAW Committee has stressed that under certain circumstances, in particular where an armed group with an identifiable political structure exercises significant control over territory and population, non-state actors are indebted to respect international human rights laws.

According to comments provided by the CEDAW committee what constitutes accountability to end violence against women (VAW) includes both obligations of means or conduct and obligations of results. It highlights that ending violence against women in all contexts requires efforts that include for instance state’s duty to abstain from invading the rights of women. It also includes actions that are positive towards fulfilling and realizing women’s rights through the provision of relevant services. Under article 2 of CEDAW, the obligation to respect, the obligation to protect, and the obligation to fulfill are discussed. Significant obligations that require the attention of the ruling party in Ethiopia are obligations to protect and to fulfill.

The obligation to protect, is the obligation of a government to defend women’s rights against infringement by third parties not affiliated to the government. In addition to CEDAW, all members of the African Union including Ethiopia are bound to respect the rights protected under the African Charter on Human and people’s Rights. The African Charter demands the eradication of discrimination against women and calls for the protection of women’s rights as guaranteed under international human rights frameworks. The Charter’s clear reference to international women’s rights instruments is very strong and provides more protection to women in Africa including their protection from rape. More specifically article 5 of the charter prohibits all forms of exploitation and degradation including slavery, slave trade, torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment and treatment. Interpretations provided by the African Commission have directly referred to the application of article 5 not only to physical and psychological harm but also to those, which relate to the individual’s personhood. Therefore, it is submitted that Article 5 of the Charter guarantees the protection of women from rape during conflict. 

Article 3 of the Maputo Protocol also enshrines that every woman has the right to dignity inherent in human beings and to respect as a person and to the free development of her personality. This protocol also clearly prohibits violence against women including women’s protection from physical, sexual, psychological, and economic harm. From the definition provided by the Protocol, it is clear that such protection also includes protection from rape during an armed conflict.

The Maputo Protocol also protects women from the violation of their human rights both in their private and public life; during both peacetime and conflict. The protocol stipulates that states are under an obligation to protect women seeking asylum and refugee status because of a given armed conflict by categorizing acts that have happened during the conflict including rape as a war crime

Article 11(2) of the Maputo Protocol further underlines that women in whatever ethnic group they belong in a conflict should be provided civilian protection from violence. Here, the Maputo Protocol is very clear that rape during conflict constitutes an international war crime as stipulated under the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the ICC. The Protocol also positions sexual violence including wartime rape as genocide and requires African states when in conflict to adhere to the principles of international humanitarian law. These principles have been violated by parties to the conflict in Tigray. 

Humanitarian access and restricted resources for service providers have reduced the availability of essential health care and support for survivors of sexual violence, including sexual and reproductive health care. Access to lifesaving aid, such as dignity kits, post-rape kits, treatment to prevent HIV and STI transmission and psychosocial programs also remain critical.

The ruling party, therefore, needs to take appropriate measures to ensure that violent crimes are promptly reported and women are provided essential services. The ruling party therefore should;

  1. Collaborate with local and international fact-finding missions to ensure that all perpetrators of sexual and other violence against women during the conflict are properly identified and prosecuted to deter the further commission of violent acts not only in Tigray but also in other parts of Ethiopia where violent crimes involving women are documented.
  2. Take appropriate legal, institutional, and financial measures to ensure the provision of comprehensive services for survivors of sexual violence including but not limited to medical, psychological, and social services necessary for their rehabilitation and reintegration with their community. 
  3. Facilitate improved funding and support to expand the provision of vital services including one stop centers and safe homes, humanitarian contact, and language access for reporting violent crimes.
  4. Ensure justice and accountability for rights violations and grant other relevant remedies including compensation.[1]

[1] Recent reports indicate that a task force been established focusing on this particular issue and the writer believes this article could contribute to such work and agenda,

Dunia Mekonnen Tegegn is an Ethiopian Human Rights Lawyer and Gender Equality Advocate.She has previously worked as a Human Rights Officer in Addis Ababa in the Africa branch of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She also worked as a Program Officer on Ending Violence against Women and Girls at UN Women and as an Alternative Care Expert with UNICEF. Dunia holds a Master of Laws in National Security from Georgetown University Law Center and is a member of the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), the Ethiopian Bar Association, and the Ethiopian American Bar Association in Washington DC.