Editor's note: This article contains details of sexual violence.
Women and girls in Ethiopia’s Tigray have remained particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the ongoing war in the region. The conflict began in November 2020 and has left millions displaced and most of the region experiencing famine, alongside extreme human rights violations.
By April this year, cases of sexual violence being perpertrated by all sides of the conflict were steadily becoming public knowledge, with aid workers and medics on the ground saying that the reported cases do not account for the true number of those violated. Emergency relief coordinator at the United Nations, Mark Lockwood, weighed in on the reports of abuse, explaining that he had heard first-hand accounts.
“There is no doubt that sexual violence is being used in this conflict as a weapon of war,” he said. “As a means to humiliate, terrorize, and traumatize an entire population today and into the next generation.”
While the UN began an investigation in May 2021 into cases of abuse, the results have yet to be released, and solutions have yet to be announced.
Meanwhile Amnesty International released a report in August called “‘I don’t know if they realized I was a person’: Rape and sexual violence in the conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia.” In the report, the organization detailed accounts of abuse, slavery, violence, and torture that women and young girls have experienced as a result of the war thus far.
We spoke with Amnesty International Campaigner Vanessa Tsehaye, to find out more about the report, to understand the extent of the war’s impact on women and girls, and to learn what needs to be done moving forward to protect their rights.
Can you tell us about what daily life is like for women and girls in Tigray right now?
We're talking about a situation where everyone in the region is living outside of the normal circumstances of how they usually live — there is no electricity, no telecommunications, the banking system is closed, schools are not just closed but have been destroyed, hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes. Even if there was poverty or even if there were struggles before, the war has really taken that to a whole new level.
There are women and girls who've been affected by the violence. Some of it includes the fighting and the attacks, but it also includes the sexual violence that has been affecting women and girls particularly.
And then in addition to all of that, there is a humanitarian crisis happening in Tigray right now. Over 5.2 million people need emergency food assistance — people are starving. The health care system has collapsed.
Some of the most basic needs that women and girls have... they're not getting the support that they need for that. In addition to that you have sexual violence, and then because of the health care system having collapsed, they don't have access to those services, as well. So there's just a myriad of different challenges facing women and girls in Tigray today.
Analysts have referred to sexual violence cases in Tigray as a ‘weapon of war’ — do you agree with that statement?
Well, yes. We recently released a report that's actually titled, “I don't know if they realized that I was a person.” And that's the summary of how sexual violence has been used in the Tigray conflict.
It was defined by brutality, there were beatings, torture, and death threats, ethnic slurs against the Tigrayan women.
A majority of the survivors that we interviewed were gang raped. Many of them were held in circumstances that account sexual slavery, where they were held for days and weeks, some of them for months, by the perpetrators. The range of victims include young children. The youngest victim that we documented was 10, the oldest was 62. Some of them were raped in front of their family members, in front of their own children. Some of them are pregnant. The circumstances around sexual violence in Tigray has been shocking.
What has happened to the women and girls in Tigray is unacceptable. It's illegal. It's unlawful not just under Ethiopian law, but of course, individual and international law. They deserve reparations, they deserve justice in the form of legal justice, and for the perpetrators to be held accountable in a court of law.
They deserve rehabilitation — whether it's physical, because a lot of them have suffered physical damages, but also there are a lot of psychological damages. This is something that they will live with for the rest of their lives. Countless. We don't know how many of them are survivors of this.
What did it mean to you to have women trust you with their personal experiences?
We had two researchers conducting the interviews, but I think I can answer as someone who was still receiving the interviews in a way, and working with the interviews and to build the campaigns.
I understood, I've understood from the beginning, but I really understand that when people are willing to speak to us in this way, when the conflict is still ongoing, knowing how taboo sexual violence is in our culture, because, of course, you know, I'm Eritrean, so we share cultures in many ways. I think that in itself was a sign of the gravity of the situation, the fact that these people were desperate for their voices to be heard. For this to stop, but also for them to get justice. Again, the fact that they were willing to speak and it's the fact that they spoke so candidly about the experiences.
The fact that they did trust us… for me, that was just a sign of how desperate that they were, for their voices to be heard, and how they’ve felt. I've heard it myself — “How is the world not doing enough? How's the world not stopping this?” That's really the sentiment that has come across.
That bravery comes from desperation, it comes from knowing that the world needs to know this. If these stories are not enough for the African Union to act, and for the United Nations to act as African governments to finally put more pressure on the Ethiopian government, then what will we be? What more do you need?
What are the threats that women could face for reporting abuse from soldiers?
There's a fear around speaking out, of course we have to ensure that the people who we speak to are protected. There are people who are speaking in the media but it comes with a risk, and some people think it's worth it because they're seeing what's happening to themselves, to their families, and to their communities.
It’s the fact that their voices will be heard and the light will be shone on Tigray. That's a risk that they will have to take, which I admire.
At the same time interviewing people about sexual violence is sometimes much more sensitive. For the person who has experienced it, it's very, very vulnerable. You’re sharing a very personal experience. Sometimes it's an element of shame because in most cultures sexual violence unfortunately is still something that people get shamed for — even though they're the survivors and they're not the perpetrators.
That's another element to it. It's not just the fact that they're accusing soldiers who are still operating in the country. It’s just that they're accusing people who are literally still around them, even though they're in the camps, either internally or in Sudan, they're still at risk. It’s in addition to that, it’s the fact that they're speaking about sexual violence, which makes it even more sensitive. And that's why I'm eternally grateful.
Amnesty International and everyone who's taken part, and who is using this report to campaign, and even just people who are reading it, most of us are just eternally grateful for the brave survivors who spoke to us. If it weren't for them, we would never have been able to document it and we wouldn't have been able to know the extent of what's happening in Tigray.
We still don't know, we don't know how many more there are. We don't know how more widespread this could be. But because of these brave women and girls we at least know that the situation is this bad. And it's enough to know how much we know. If you read the report, it's page after page of terrible testimonies, that's enough for us. And that should be enough for the African Union to act. That should be enough for the United Nations to act. And that's thanks to them.
What can people around the world do to help the situation in Tigray?
We need to continue raising awareness about what's happening. We're entering the 11th month, pursuing one year that this whole thing started.
Right now, we are seeing the disproportionate effect it's having on women and girls. I think that we should rally around the women and girls, we should rally to call for justice for them, call for protection, and call for an end to violations happening to them, both in terms of violence, but also in terms of the lack of humanitarian access that's affecting everyone.
We have a situation where the international community has completely failed in every sense of that word. And in order for them to act, we need to apply pressure on our governments. Our governments need to feel that pressure from us. I would, of course, urge people to continue to read, and raise awareness, and post on social media, and sign petitions. Of course, I would direct them to Amnesty International where we have campaigns running on these issues.
This article is a part of OkayAfrica's Crossroads, a special series supported by Global Citizen examining Global Africa at critical moments. For the first part of the Crossroads series, Global Citizen is joining OkayAfrica in four weeks of coverage examining Ethiopia through a deep dive into music, politics, and culture.