By: Dunia Mekonnen Tegegn
Due to the conflict in Ethiopia, women and girls continue to bear the brunt of the cruel and inhuman acts committed by all parties involved in the conflict for the last 16 months. Many have lost their lives, suffered sexual violence, displaced, and starved. Women living with disability, older women, and refugee women have been the target of brutal sexual violence. These crimes are horrific in nature as they represent the level of vengeance and humiliation pursued by actors in the conflict. Reports have highlighted the extent of these violations and implicated all sides to the conflict in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, Ethiopia’s National Defense Force, Eritrean Defense Force as well as Amhara Special Force and its allied militia committed widespread sexual abuse against Tigrayan women. In the initial stages of the conflict, rape cases were reported in Mekele, Ayder, Adigrat, and Wukro hospitals of Tigray. Investigations on human rights in Tigray indicate that Tigrayan women were subjected to attempted rape, gang rape, oral and anal rape, and insertion of foreign objects into the vagina; in addition, they were subjected to ethnic slurs and degrading comments. They were also exposed to unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Access to humanitarian aid including access to sexual and reproductive health services remains a challenge. Sexual violence was used as a weapon of war and as a deliberate strategy to terrorize, degrade and humiliate the victims. In the most hideous way, Eritrean women and girls fleeing persecution in Eritrea were raped by members of Eritrean Defense Forces and forces allied to the Tigray People Liberation Front in the Tigray region of Ethiopia where they sought refuge. To date, women who were impacted by the conflict continue to be the subject of abduction while on the move.
The number of women who are subjected to sexual violence augmented when the conflict expanded its horizon to the Amhara and Afar regions of Ethiopia. In these two regions, Tigrayan forces committed widespread sexual violence against Amhara and Afari women and girls. In Nifas Mewcha, vicinity of the Amhara region of Ethiopia, women were raped for a nine-day period. Women were subjected to gang rape including in front of their children, physically assaulted, called names and degraded with ethnic slurs, impregnated by their rapists, and suffered mental health problems including anxiety and depression. They were also robbed and deprived of their source of income. Women were unable to access comprehensive post-rape care, including emergency contraception, post-emergency prophylaxis for HIV and sexually transmitted infections. In these two regions, Tigray Defense Forces used sexual violence to demoralize, dehumanize and punish communities. Sexual violence was used in a more premeditated and organized manner arbitrarily but also selectively for combat purposes.
Due to the nature of this crime, the tendency of survivors coming forward with what happened to them in the current context of Ethiopia is limited. There is a likelihood of under-reporting because of the nature of the Ethiopian polity where patriarchy is the dominant view.
Violations of Women’s Human Rights
Conflicts exacerbate deep-rooted inequalities in any country. The gender discrimination women and girls are subjected to in a society amplifies their victimization during the conflict. Outside conflict, women in Ethiopia faced gender-based violence including marital rape and other evolving forms of violence such as acid attacks, gang rape, and abduction. 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 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 all actors in the conflict used rape as a weapon.
Ethiopia’s constitution provides full and equal dignity for women under articles 25 and 35. Ethiopia’s revised criminal code also provides explicit prohibition of violence against women and girls including rape. 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. Article 5 of the African 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 on Human and People’s Rights have directly referred to the application of Article 5 not only to physical and psychological harm but also to the protection of women from sexual violence during armed conflict. As a result of the conflict, Ethiopian women and girls were deprived of the protection they are bestowed with.
It is important to understand that sexual violence is not and should not be considered as an unavoidable outcome of any conflict. It is a crime that is preventable and punishable under International Human Rights Law, International Criminal Law, and International Humanitarian Law. Ethiopia is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Article 1 of CEDAW defines discrimination against women to include gender-based violence which is violence directed against a woman because she is a woman, or because it affects women excessively. In the context of this definition, rape during conflict is discrimination against women directed at them because of their gender.
CEDAW does not allow States to derogate from Convention obligations during periods of conflict or public emergency. State obligations linger during such periods, including due diligence obligations to prevent, investigate, punish and ensure remedy. Under the convention, state parties are also required to control the activities of domestic non-State actors within their jurisdiction. States also have an obligation to regulate non-State actors under the duty to protect, so they exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, punish and ensure reparation for the acts of non-state actors. By depriving women of these protections, all actors in the conflict: Ethiopia’s Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense Forces, Tigray People Liberation Front, and allied militia, and Amhara Defense Forces and allied militia committed war crimes. In elaborating on article 2 of CEDAW, General Comment 30 clarifies the application of the Convention to situations of armed conflict including complex peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction processes. It outlines the content of the obligations assumed by state parties and further highlights the obligations of non-State actors such as the Tigray People Liberation Front and allied militia and that of Amhara Defense Forces and allied militia. Although these actors cannot become parties to women’s rights instruments in general, in the context they exist in Ethiopia, they have an identifiable political structure and exercised significant control over territory and population during the conflict. Hence, they are indebted to respect international human rights laws.
On top of the obligations discussed above, as far as article 12 of CEDAW on adequate standard of living is concerned, General Comment 30 of CEDAW states that state parties have an obligation to ensure psychosocial support; family planning services, including emergency contraception; maternal health services, including antenatal care, skilled delivery services, prevention of vertical transmission and emergency obstetric care; safe abortion services; post-abortion care; prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, post-exposure prophylaxis including care to treat injuries such as fistula. Under the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Ethiopia ratified in 1993, pregnant women have the right to health and essential health services that are free when necessary as part of their right to the highest attainable standard of health. The documented limitations on access to essential health care services in conflict-affected regions of Ethiopia are tantamount to violation of both the CEDAW and the ICESCR.
The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (The Maputo Protocol) which was ratified by Ethiopia on July 18, 2018, elaborates on the right of women to security. The Maputo Protocol protects women from the violation of their human rights both during peacetimes and conflict times. The protocol also calls on states to protect women seeking asylum and refugee status in their territory. In the context of the conflict in Ethiopia, Eritrean refugee women’s right was violated when members of Eritrea’s Defense Force and Tigray Defense force subjected them to sexual violence.
Article 11(2) of the Maputo Protocol further underlines that women in whatever ethnic group they belong to in a conflict should be provided civilian protection. In utter disregard of this, women belonging to diverse ethnic groups: Tigray, Amhara, Afar were subjected to sexual violence. Ethiopian National Defense Force, Eritrean National Defense Force, Tigray People Liberation Front, allied militia, and Amhara Defense Force and allied militia violated the right of each individual woman to be recognized as a civilian and be provided with such protection.
Impacts of the conflict on women and girls
In addition to the widely reported sexual violence, restricted humanitarian aid, food, access to the internet particularly in Tigray negatively impacted survivors of sexual violence. The lack of medical supplies and trauma kits further characterizes the dire situation in all regions the conflict took place. As investigations indicate, in all places the conflict took place, women who were raped were physically abused and experienced mental health problems. A significant number of girls were also forced to leave their schools early. Access to lifesaving aid including treatment for HIV and STD transmission, contraception, post-exposure prophylaxis as well as psychosocial programs continue to be limited in Tigray. These problems spread widely to the Afar and Amhara regions of Ethiopia after the conflict expanded its reach to these places. Women’s livelihood and sources of income were highly impacted due to the conflict as many women were forced to abandon them.
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. Limited safe spaces for women and girls also added misery to the negative experience women and girls had to go through as a result of the conflict.
A significant number of Tigrayan women who were subjected to sexual violence fled to Sudan, where the conditions of women particularly in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and along the Blue Nile are still impacted by the prolonged civil war and ongoing governance challenges. An increase in the number of women who migrated to neighboring countries including Sudan was documented after the conflict expanded its reach to Amhara and Afar.
Calls to actions
As it stands now, Ethiopia’s priority should be its people, the majority of whom are women and girls. The plight of women and girls can only be addressed through broader efforts including effective law enforcement, swift corrective and accountability measures, and a sit down with all concerned actors. It is also important that Ethiopia’s post-conflict justice priorities for women and girls focus not only on civil and political rights but also on economic, social, and cultural rights.
In the short run, the following critical actions need to be taken
- End the pain and suffering of women, and girls through pledging for unconditional ceasefire, and arms embargo; design effective disarmament, demobilization and reintegration processes and ban arms proliferation in the different regions of Ethiopia;
- Take appropriate legal and institutional measures to protect women and girls at risk of sexual violence, including internally displaced and refugee women belonging to affected ethnic groups;
- 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;
- Establish multipurpose community centers that link immediate assistance to economic and social empowerment and reintegration, and mobile clinics in places where the conflict ensued;
- Mitigate the costs of the war on women and girls through collaboration with civil society.
- Avail women’s rights defenders and experts working with survivors of sexual violence with counseling sevices and on job trainings to help them cope with stress and trauma.
In the long run, the following actions need urgent attention
- 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;
- Build the capacity of the judiciary in Ethiopia including in the context of transitional justice mechanisms, to ensure its independence, impartiality and integrity including through technical cooperation with experts in the area. If and when possible, constitute a separate adhoc commission that can adjudicate cases of sexual violence, and design non-judicial remedies such as truth commissions and reparations;
- Protect women’s rights defenders from State or non-State attacks that undermine their equal and meaningful participation in political and public space;
- Ensure that legislative, executive, administrative and other regulatory instruments do not restrict women’s participation in the prevention, management and resolution of the conflict. Increase the number of women commissioners under the newly established Commission for National Dialogue;
- Promote inclusion and transparency under the National Dialogue Commission. Constitute an advisory committee for the the newly established Commission for National Dialogue and include survivors of sexual violence in the discussions;
- Plan specific interventions to contribute to opportunities for women’s economic empowerment including through promoting their right to education.
Dunia Mekonnen Tegegn is a 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.