The Tigray Region in northern Ethiopia, once the core of the Aksumite Kingdom, is now witnessing a grinding civil war. Of grave international concern is the fact that this crisis has turned into an act of ethnic cleansing, whereby Ethiopian and Eritrean forces are using rape to cleanse the Tigrayan bloodline, and hence gradually eliminate the Tigrayan ethnic group from the region. Therefore, rape is being used, in effect, as a weapon of war. However, despite the scale of these atrocities, society has tools at its disposal to halt them and prevent their reoccurrence in the future. The answer lies, not in mere condemnation, nor in the use of force, but in a deep-rooted social change driven by the empowerment of women and the education of men in gender (in)equality matters. Only in this way, will Ethiopia be able to rise above this patriarchal violence and become a less gendered society.
Currently the Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers are employing rape as punishment towards those linked to the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), a former political party which dominated Ethiopian politics before Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia’s Prime Minister in 2018. Since Abiy came to power, hostilities have been constant between his government and the leaders of the TPLF due to the latter not being recognised as an official Ethiopian party and being excluded from the ruling coalition government. Such enmities culminated with the TPLF going to war with the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments in November 2020. This is a conflict, which according to Abiy, has now ceased. However, violence continues to assail the region. The government’s forces keep on not only attacking the Tigray Defence Forces Armed movement (formerly TPLF), but also pursuing the systemic annihilation of the Tigray ethnic group. Civilian attacks have become a constant in the region, with women being the preferred target. Sexual violence against this demographic is rife, despite being prohibited under international humanitarian law and human rights laws, and the practice being condemned by the Ethiopian government itself.
A United States Institute of Peace special report on wartime sexual violence has concluded that a quest for power is the main motive behind sexual violence. The Ethiopian army uses this method to advance its quest to overthrow the Tigray Defence Forces, and exert its regional dominance. Army members have been attacking, beating, and raping civilians in a bid to demonstrate their power. For instance, allegations have surfaced of women coerced into exchanging sex for basic commodities due to their need to provide for their families. Moreover, a UN report confirmed that official soldiers have been forcing individuals to rape their own female family members in exchange for their lives. To make matters worse, most victims are part of those 735,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) who were forced by the outbreak of war to flee their homes. Thus, these purposeful, humiliating acts, are empowering the perpetrators whilst leaving the Tigray populous feeling vulnerable as they have no place where they can live in safety.
Nevertheless, the Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers are not the sole offenders of such violations; the Tigrayan forces have also been accused, albeit on fewer occasions, of similar sexual crimes. However, irrespective of allegiances, sexual violence is plaguing Tigrayan society and is unlikely to decrease any time soon. A coordinator of a gender-based violence crisis centre in Tigray told CNN reporters that rapes in the area have grown from averaging one a week prior to the outbreak of the conflict to more than 22 daily cases. However, the number of cases is probably even higher, as many go unreported due to most of victims keeping these atrocities to themselves.
Sexual violations are generally treated as a taboo topic, with many victims not reporting them due to fear, shame, or even guilt. As seen with the Tigray War, this sentiment only intensifies in conflict zones, where insecurity is the norm. Such insecurity has prevented countless women from seeking help and reporting their experiences. Many have sought to become less noticeable, using head coverings and long skirts, out of fear of being assaulted. Therefore, Tigrayan women need protection and education to empower them to fight for their freedom and to escape from the victim role which they are being forced into by the Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers.
However, as stated by the International Committee of the Red Cross in a report on sexual violence in conflict zones, the protection of civilians against sexual crimes in these environments is very complicated. Sexual violations in conflict are not carried out in isolation but are normally accompanied by other unlawful violations, ranging from looting to civilian killings or child recruitment. For instance, in early March 2021, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported how Eritrean soldiers massacred more than one hundred civilians in Tigray, including children, in November 2020. These more visible war crimes overshadow the cruelty of sexual violations, a more silent and difficult crime to detect, but one that still leaves deep wounds in the victims, their families and communities. International Law, International Humanitarian Law, and Human Rights Law all deem acts of sexual violence unlawful, providing societal frameworks and conventions aimed at preventing such actions from occurring, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Furthermore, powerful institutions that condemn these violations exist, including the International Criminal Court (ICC), yet, sexual violence is still very much present, with the Tigrayan atrocities attesting to this.
A major hurdle to addressing the sexual abuse currently taking place in the Tigray War is the abundance of deliberate misinformation and contradicting reports being released from the conflict zone to mislead external opinions over the conflict. Although numerous recent reports and allegations about the possible atrocities taking place against the Tigrayan population have surfaced, much is still flying under the radar. The invisibility of these massacres has also been fomented by the Ethiopian government, which has imposed severe restrictive access measures for journalists and humanitarian workers, making it challenging to corroborate survivors’ stories. Thus, it is almost impossible to estimate the multitude of offenses that are taking place and who, in reality, is to blame. So, the opaque nature of the experiences of locals, together with the feelings of shame or fear are preventing the reporting of such actions, hindering the possibility of intervention to halt such cruelty.
Even prior to the present civil war, in Ethiopia, sexual and gender violence has been a common social problem for decades, with 35% of married women in 2016 reporting some sort of sexual violence. This number has dramatically increased in the Tigray region since the war broke out, with more than 500 cases officially reported in March 2021 in that region alone (with real numbers likely being much higher). This is occurring despite the Ethiopian government ratifying many women right’s conventions such as the CEDAW, and including women’s rights provisions and policies in its 1995 Constitution. The Ethiopian administration has also endeavoured to treat gender-based violence survivors with the establishment of more shelters and programmes to reintegrate them into society. However, gender inequalities are ingrained in the daily lives of women and girls, leading them to have a greater likelihood of living with violence in their homes compared with men. Combined with a lack of control over their bodies, this ensures they are more prone to violations of their sexual and reproductive rights; hence, why nationwide progress on gender equality is needed.
It is not enough for a country’s leaders to state their position against sexual violence, just like those in Ethiopia have done, whilst their own army is simultaneously executing such appalling actions. Thus, on top of halting hostilities, investigating into the grave violations committed and condemning the perpetrators of such acts, the latter being a process that has now been initiated through international communal pressure and headed conjunctly by the UN’s High Commissioner Office and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHCR), a more educational and cultural change is needed. As stated by the 48th Session of the Commission of Status of Women (CSW), to achieve that change towards gender equality, men need to engage in conversations around sexual health, gender-sensitive behaviour and toxic masculinity. Also, it is essential to break gender stereotypes, and to instigate a reconstruction of the concept of masculinity to allow for men’s patriarchal and violent mindsets to, with time, decrease. Likewise, women empowerment programmes can provide great value to sexual violence survivors and to the community itself. These can change participants’ beliefs and increase their self-confidence, making women more participative within their own communities. Furthermore, they can also make women more willing to support and educate others on gender violence, sexual assaults, and mistreatment of women. The damaging effects of these acts can include sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, psychological effects like PTSD (between 17% and 65% of women sexually assaulted in adulthood display symptoms of PTSD), self-harm, and relational and social adverse effects, such as loss of trust, isolation or fear of intimacy. Developing a nurturing community can thus assist in overcoming these devastating physical, psychological, emotional, and social consequences of gender violence. Hence, in Ethiopia, this more holistic approach to this challenge, engaging both men and women in the process of change, will not only help to prevent actions of sexual violence from occurring again but will also empower communities and the coming generations to speak out and defend human rights for all, forming and sustaining more equal and inclusive societies.
Unfortunately, changing mindsets and bringing about cultural change takes time. As efforts continue, strong prosecution and condemnation of sexual crimes remain essential to keep offenders in line and prevent future waves of atrocities like those currently taking place in Tigray. Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law must not be breached merely to wield power. Rape and other sexual crimes must not remain as tools of war in Tigray, nor anywhere else. Thus, the Ethiopian Government, its Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed (a Nobel Peace Prize winner) and the international community must denounce and take action to prevent such cruel tactics from continuing to be used. The Tigrayan population, and especially its women, deserve to feel safe again.
Cristina Romero-Caballero Cuttell is a part-time MA International Relations student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her research interests are around the topics of Migration, Climate Change, Gender and Human Rights. She is a Spanish Red Cross volunteer in the Canary Islands helping aid the migrants currently arriving at its shores and also a remote intern with VolNepal helping implement a Women Economic Empowerment Programme in Nepal.