By Reinhard Jacobsen
The scale and brutality of crimes of conflict-related sexual violence against women committed in Tigray have drawn widespread condemnation from around the world.
It was no surprise that the Europe External Programme with Africa (EEPA) focussed on that theme in the Webinar organised on May 25. EEPA is a Belgium-based centre of expertise with in-depth knowledge, publications, and networks, specialised in issues of peacebuilding, refugee protection, and resilience in the Horn of Africa.
The importance of the Webinar also lies in the fact that there is massive underreporting of sexual violence against women. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated in April that 22,500 women would require support as a consequence of conflict-related sexual violence.
The shame and fear associated with the violence and perpetrators acting with impunity and the destruction of local administration and hospitals compound the problem of underreporting. In fact, whatever little is being reported is only the tip of the iceberg.
Many have described conflict-related sexual violence as a weapon of war used against the civilian population, and committed, in part, with genocidal intent.
The perpetrators are said to be the Eritrean troops with a heavy presence in Tigray under the so-called National Service, a form of nation-wide indefinite slavery, which the UN Special Commission of Inquiry has defined as crimes against humanity.
The Commission has recommended the practice to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. The other perpetrators mentioned are the Amhara and Ethiopian National Defence.
After months of denial, Nobel laureate Prime Minister Abiy has meanwhile admitted that Eritrean troops as present and identified these as potential perpetrators of sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls.
The Webinar meeting was chaired by Julia Duncan-Cassell, former Minister of Gender in Liberia. In her concluding remarks, she asked all African women in leadership to step up their voice to stop the harrowing perpetration of rape as a weapon of war in Tigray.
Duncan-Cassell told the Tigray women who gave their testimony in the webinar that African women were sharing their pain and asked Africa and the world to end the violence against women.
She said that former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, now African Union Envoy to the Horn, is following the situation closely and closely working with US UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield to address it.
Duncan-Cassell closed the webinar by stating that “The perpetration of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence has not diminished and is spreading across the Horn. There must be concerted and coordinated international pressure and targeted sanctions. These atrocities must come to an end, and soldiers and their commanders must be prosecuted.”
She called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Tigray, particularly those from Eritrea, the referral of the deployment by Eritrea of National Service in a foreign jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court, and all parties in Tigray to end with immediate effect the impunity of the use of Rape as a Weapon of War.
In an opening keynote address, a Member of the European Parliament said that girls and women being raped in the Tigray region are reportedly aged between 8 and 72. The rapes are being carried out in front of family, husbands, and children. The rapes can last for days, and often inflict life-threatening injuries.
She referred to Sir Mark Andrew Lowcock, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, describing the attacks in Eritrea, “as a means to humiliate, terrorize, and traumatize an entire population today and into the next generation.”
“I have said many times, it is beyond comprehension that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has overseen such destruction, tyranny and deprivation,” she added.
Sometimes the world views war as the theatre of men. But it is often women that pay an equal or greater price behind the scenes: Loss of economic empowerment, rape, forced prostitution, starvation, backsteps in social equality, she added.
“Sexual violence against women and girls has been used as a weapon of war for centuries. The lasting damage clear to see. We saw it with the women of Rwanda, South Korea, Yugoslavia; and these are just the examples of the last century.
“But the inaction of the international community makes it seem as though we have learned nothing. President Biden, the G7, the UN, and the EU have all condemned and expressed concern over what is happening.
“But words are not enough to make the suffering of women stop. Condemnation is important, but it’s not enough to make families sleep soundly tonight in Tigray.
“There must be concerted and coordinated international pressure and targeted sanctions. These atrocities must come to an end, and soldiers and their commanders must be prosecuted.”
In the Webinar, women from Tigray presented their harrowing ordeal, a third of rapes executed as gang rapes, over multiple days, in public, in front of family members including their children, their genitals burned or filled with foreign objects including burning sticks and relatives forced to perpetrate rape on Tigray women. The testimonies said that witnesses of the crimes committed and the children including babies of the rape victims were killed in the violence.
Selam Kidane, an Eritrean human rights advocate, told the conference that Eritrea is committing troops in Tigray that have suffered under the plight of National Service, a form of slavery, which has been qualified as a Crime against Humanity and she begged the international community to refer Eritrea to the ICC for the crimes committed by Eritrea on foreign soil in Tigray.
Mariam Basajja presented the Africa Women for Peace in the Horn Initiative expressing those young women from the entire continent stood by the women in Tigray
Tigray Human Rights advocate, Meaza Gidey, called the rape against women in Tigray a genocide: “Women are raped because they are Tigrayan, to cleanse the bloodline. The world has all the facts. I call on all relevant actors to listen to the cries of the innocent women of Tigray. They are not only being raped but they are also starved to death.”
Malgorzata Tarasiewicz, Director from East-West Women Network based in Poland, said the international community had all the tools it needed to respond to the situation in Tigray where rape is used as a weapon of war and that it should respond without delay.