Sexual violence against women in Tigray

Article by Alexandra Reinhild Berndt

In Ethiopia’s Tigray region sexual violence against women has dramatically increased. According to Mark Lowcock, the Emergency Relief Coordinator of the OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), sexual violence in the Tigray region is “used as weapon of war” (Nichols, 2021). Women’s rights groups confirm this assessment: Saba Gebremedhin, a women’s rights activist from the Tigray region, warned that rape is increasingly used as means of humiliation and dehumanisation against Tigrayan people (Africanews, 2021). Weyni Abraha, another Tigrayan women’s rights activist, also stated in an interview with the BBC that women are raped “purposely to break the morale of people, threaten them and make them give up the fight” (BBC, 2021). In this article I will focus on the situation of women and the reaction the international community and the Ethiopian government.

Cruel reports of sexual violence

In the last weeks and months, more and more cruel stories of sexually abused come to light. There are reports of individuals who were “allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence” (BBC, 2021). Many other women reported that “rocks, nails and other objects have been forced inside [their] bodies” (Walsh, 2021). The physical and emotional injuries are unimaginable. There are women who suffer from “sexually transmitted diseases and injuries that rendered them incontinent” (Houreld, 2021).

Lack of access to medical help

The access to medical help is thus more than ever important to women. According to UNICEF, however, only thirteen percent of the medical facilities in the Tigray region are functional (UNICEF, 2021). Most of the health clinics have been plundered, damaged or destroyed during the conflict (Walsh, 2021). This further exacerbates the situation of affected women. It is more and more difficult for women to get access to medical help, anti-STD medication and emergency contraception (BBC, 2021)

Stigmatization

Dr. Fasika Amdeselassie, a public health official reported that there have been at least 829 cases of sexual assault since the beginning of the Tigray conflict (Nichols, 2021; Houreld, 2021). The estimated number of unknown cases, however, is assumed to be much higher. There are two main reasons for this: lack of medical facilities and stigmatization. Ethiopia is a very conservative country (Clark & Kyte, 2021). Many women are afraid to report sexual violence because rape is highly stigmatized in Ethiopia (Houreld, 2021). Those women who are willing to tell their trauma are exposed to a “risk of reprisal” (Clark & Kyte). Furthermore, officials are sometimes unwilling to report sexual violence due to fear of facing retaliation from the military which “could target them for documenting the crime” (Walsh, 2021). Women are thus increasingly living in a situation of fear and insecurity. Many women who experienced sexual violence are no longer able to “care for their children and support their families” (Clark & Kyte, 2021).  This has devastating effects on children. The calls for support of Tigrayan women and girls are thus getting louder.

International reaction

The increase in sexual violence against women has captured the attention of the international community (Houreld, 2021). France, Italy, Germany, the UK, the US and Canada “condemn[ed] the killing of civilians [and the] sexual and gender-based violence” (Euronews, 2021). The United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, “demanded that the UN act at the highest level to apply resolution 1325 to the crimes in Tigray” (Clark & Kyte, 2021). This resolution (which has been adopted in 2000) calls for the protection of women and girls from violence in conflict (Clark & Kyte, 2021). In April 2021, the Security Council finally agreed on a public statement. The members of the Security Council “expressed their deep concern about allegations of human rights violations and abuses, including reports of sexual violence against women and girls” (Nichols, 2021).

Reaction of the Ethiopian government

In March 2021, Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia acknowledged the atrocities and promised to punish offenders (Houreld, 2021). Furthermore, Ethiopia’s minister of women, children and youth, Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed, initiated a task force to investigate cases of sexual violence (Africanews, 2021). The Ethiopian government thus reacted to the international pressure.

Conclusion

Already in August 2020, Human Rights organizations as Genocide Watch expressed their concerns and warned the international community of potential atrocities (Ochab, 2021). It is thus very sad that it needed so much time for the international community to find a response to the violence in Tigray.

silhouette of person on window
Photo by Maxim Hopman published on Unsplash

References

Africanews. (2021, March 09). Survivors allege rape by soldiers in Tigray. Retrieved May 5, 2021, from https://www.africanews.com/2021/03/09/survivors-allege-rape-by-soldiers-in-tigray/

BBC. (2021, February 15). Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis: ‘I lost my hand when a soldier tried to rape me’. Retrieved May 5, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-55832711

Clark, H., & Kyte, R. (2021, April 27). In Tigray, sexual violence has become a weapon of war. Retrieved May 5, 2021, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/04/27/in-tigray-sexual-violence-has-become-a-weapon-of-war/

Euronews. (2021, April 02). G7 ‘seriously concerned’ about human rights violations in Tigray. Retrieved May 5, 2021, from https://www.euronews.com/2021/04/02/g7-seriously-concerned-about-human-rights-violations-in-ethiopia-s-tigray-region

Houreld, K. (2021, April 15). Health official alleges ‘sexual slavery’ in Tigray. Retrieved May 5, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/world/special-report-health-official-alleges-sexual-slavery-tigray-women-blame-2021-04-15/

Nichols, M. (2021, April 15). Sexual violence being used as weapon of war in Ethiopia’s Tigray, U.N. says. Retrieved May 5, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/sexual-violence-being-used-weapon-war-ethiopias-tigray-un-says-2021-04-15/

Nichols, M. (2021, April 22). U.N. Security Council, for first time, declares concern about Ethiopia’s Tigray. Retrieved May 5, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/un-security-council-notes-concern-over-humanitarian-situation-tigray-2021-04-22/

Ochab, E. U., Dr. (2021, February 16). Mass atrocities, including the use of rape and sexual violence, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Retrieved May 5, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ewelinaochab/2021/02/16/mass-atrocities-including-the-use-of-rape-and-sexual-violence-in-the-tigray-region-of-ethiopia/?sh=17d7701353d3

UNICEF. (2021, April 27). Statement on gender-based violence in Tigray region of Ethiopia. Retrieved May 5, 2021, from https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/statement-gender-based-violence-tigray-region-ethiopia

Walsh, D. (2021, April 01). ‘They told us not to resist’: Sexual violence pervades Ethiopia’s war. Retrieved May 5, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/01/world/africa/ethiopia-tigray-sexual-assault.html