Women of Tigray are calling out — are we listening?!

I’ve never been to Ethiopia. With its rich cultural heritage, unparalleled archeological sites, and delicious food, it has long been on my list of places I’d love to visit. Meanwhile I’ve been in transit through Addis Ababa Bole International Airport 17 times. Clearly, that doesn’t count.

Even though I’ve never worked or visited, I’ve still been tagged on a lot of social media advocacy for the Tigray crisis in the last few months.

Pay attention! People are telling me.

I am paying attention. We all should.

And even though I’ve never been there — I still can do something. Let’s start at the beginning.

Ethiopia is strategic and important. Africa’s second most populous country has endured civil war, famine, and military rule for decades. But recently, Ethiopia’s story was changing. The economy has grown rapidly, along with its strategic importance in the Horn of Africa and the wider region.

What’s up with Tigray?!

Tigray is the country’s northernmost state, home to around 7 million Tigrayans — 6% of Ethiopia’s population. Since November of 2020, the Ethiopian government has been in conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Thousands of lives have been lost, and at least a million people have been displaced.

But we’re not talking about it. The outside world has hardly noticed, while the plight of the region continues to worsen.

How bad is it, you ask? We’re talking about 90% of the population of Tigray — over 5 million people — in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance. In other words: bad.

How did we get here, you ask?

In brief — very brief — Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been mobilizing forces — the Ethiopian military, ethnic militias, and Eritrean troops — to oust the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from their stronghold in the northern region of Tigray. The TPLF are a political group of rebels-turned-rulers with a long history in the country.

The civil war is much more complicated than that (when are they ever simple?!), but what’s important to note is that the situation escalated in November of 2021, and the country has been declared a state of emergency. Tigrayans are being detained, tortured, starved. Populations are on the move, both within Ethiopia and to neighboring countries.

Today, fighting continues. This systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing is destroying — even erasing — whole villages.

What does this mean for people?!

This is a serious humanitarian emergency. And just like every other humanitarian emergency, civilians suffer most. There’s an African proverb that speaks well to this:

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

This conflict is characterized by massacres, ethnic cleansing, massive human rights violations, and widespread sexual violence. There is no electricity, schools have been destroyed, hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes. As of December 2021, 1.2 million people have been displaced from Western Tigray since the beginning of the conflict.

People are starving, children are dying of malnutrition, soldiers are looting food aid. The World Food Program stated that 9.4 million people across Ethiopia are in need of food. This crisis has taken the country to unprecedented levels of poverty.

At the same time, humanitarian assistance has been obstructed, leaving communities completely cut off from life-saving aid. The UN estimates that it needs an additional $1.2 billion to provide an adequate humanitarian response in the region. This has been called one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

What does this mean for women and girls?!

It is unfortunately not unusual for wars to play out on the bodies of women and girls. We’ve seen this just about everywhere. And here again, in Tigray, sexual violence is used as a weapon of war. That means rape is used as a deliberate military strategy to terrorize and traumatize women — and their families and communities.

Rape is actually listed as a war crime. In 1993, the United Nations Human Rights Commission passed a resolution ensuring that sexual violence would be prosecuted as a war crime and as a crime against humanity (the latter occurring in times of war and peace). Meaning: it is a serious crime and needs to be treated as such.

How serious is sexual violence in Tigray?

Too many accounts of abuse, slavery, violence, and torture of women and girls have emerged. They can not be ignored. We know that reported cases vastly underestimate reality, meaning the situation is far more serious than we know. And as we so often say: even one case is one too many.

Women and girls in Tigray are continuously being targeted for rape and all forms of sexual violence by fighting forces aligned to government. Such deliberate targeting results in massive physical and psychological damage that lasts a lifetime. Or, death.

Simply: it is very serious.

Due to the communications blackout imposed by the government, reports on sexual violence were hidden or largely unknown until April 2021. We don’t know the full extent, but the available numbers are horrifying. For instance, 2,204 survivors reported sexual violence to health facilities in Tigray in only seven months. And those are just the reported cases. This figure is a gross underestimation of reality.

Reports have documented sexual violence, in particular sexual slavery, on a shocking scale — perpetrated by all sides of the conflict. Survivors were sometimes held for days and weeks, some witnessed rape of other women, and some were raped while pregnant. 90% of victims were underage girls. The youngest was only 10 years old.

We don’t need these gruesome details to understand — or to be angry. Where is our outrage?!

Tigrayan women and activist groups are calling for humanitarian support, for an end to the violence, and for the protection of women and girls. The group Women of Tigray recent had this to say:

Tigray is experiencing genocide with the silence of the international community. Women delivering babies with bloodstained hand gloves, children dying of starvation, Tigrayans living elsewhere in Ethiopia either lynched to death or kept in concentration camps, people under siege with no banking, no humanitarian aid, no electricity, no telecommunication and with jet and drone attacks that target civilians and civilian infrastructures. The world has enough lesson to say enough to Tigray Genocide. Today should not be our tomorrow’s regret.”

What can we do?!

We can pay attention. We can learn about the situation, follow Tigrayan women online, listen to their voices, amplify their words, and support their actions.

What we can not do is look away.

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Global women's rights expert, humanitarian aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, humanitarian aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!