Sexual Violence As A Weapon of War In Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict, UN Calls For An End To the ‘Horrific’ Violence

***Trigger Warning: Sexual Violence***

Since November 2020, the fighting amongst Ethiopian government forces and the ruling faction of the country’s Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have wreaked havoc on Ethiopia. Thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands are displaced, there is widespread destruction and increased reports of indiscriminate and targeted attacks against civilians. The attacks include the horrific acts of rape and other forms of sexual violence particularly targeted at women. The international community and the United Nations (UN) have expressed concerns over the atrocities occurring.  The United States (U.S.) Secretary of State described the events being carried out as ethnic cleansing. On Monday, 22nd of March, UN officials issued a statement that called on the warring parties to protect civilians, condemn sexual violence, and hold those responsible accountable.

The conflict has deep roots, particularly along ethnic lines over control of power and influence. As Aljazeera reports, the Tigray region is one of 10 semi-autonomous federal states in Ethiopia, home mostly to the Tigrayan people who make about 6 percent of the population, and is the region controlled by the TPLF. For three decades, Tigrayans enjoyed control of the country’s government and held much power and influence. Much so that the TPLF dominated the ruling alliance composed of four ethno-regional political parties. This power ended in 2018, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, came to power. Tigray’s leaders felt their treatment under Ahmed was unfair and withdrew from the ruling coalition after Ahmed merged it into a new nationwide party. Tensions increased after Ahmed’s government postponed national elections citing the coronavirus pandemic as the reason for the postponement, an action viewed as a power-grab by Tigray. The Tigray region defiantly held elections. Ethiopia’s federal government declared Tigray elections unconstitutional and Tigray viewed Ahmed’s continued power as illegitimate. Ahmed launched military operations after accusing the TPLF of attacking a government military base. While the TPLF maintained their position that they did not start the conflict, Aljazeera later reported that a top official of the TPLF, Sekuture Getachew, confirmed the government’s claim they started the conflict by attacking the base. Military forces from neighboring country Eritrea were reported to be aiding Ethiopia’s government against the TPLF.

In addition to all the deaths, displacement, and destruction, more accounts of sexual violence being used as a weapon of war are becoming known. According to Aljazeera, the UN has received notification that more than 500 rape cases were reported to five clinics in the Tigray region. However, due to stigma and limited health services, these numbers are estimated to be much higher. According to medical records and survivor testimonies shared with CNN, women are being gang-raped, drugged, and held hostage. CNN further reports a doctor who treated these women stated the women treated were often also physically abused, with broken bones and bruised body parts. Doctors have also said there has been a rise in demand for emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections, as many women who have been raped have contracted sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. According to the doctors, almost all the women they treat share similar stories of being raped by Ethiopian and allied Eritrean soldiers. Many women shared that their attackers told them the reason they were raped was to ethnically cleanse Tigray. CNN quotes Dr. Tedros Tefera, a doctor working at a refugee camp for these women, “The women…say that the things that they say to them when they were raping them is that they need to change their identity — to either Amharize them or at least leave their Tigrinya status … and that they’ve come there to cleanse them … to cleanse the blood line…Practically this has been a genocide.”

In previous investigations, CNN reported that Eritrean soldiers have committed other human rights abuses in the Tigray region. Separate Amnesty International investigations also demonstrated evidence of massacres carried out by Eritrean forces. The Eritrean embassy of the UK and Ireland denied allegations of wrongdoing and denied their troops were in Ethiopia. After months of denying Eritrean troop involvement in Tigray, on Tuesday, Ahmed admitted Eritrean troops have been present, and according to Yahoo News, even suggested they may be involved in abuses against civilians. As the New York Times notes, on Friday, under increasing American and international pressure, Ahmed announced that Eritrean soldiers would be withdrawn from Tigray.

While Ahmed has pledged to punish any soldier who carried out violations, his stance that some allegations of violations are “overblown” or “propaganda” make it necessary that the U.S. and the international community enact pressure to end the fighting and achieve justice for the victims of the violence. In U.S. Senator Chris Coons’ visit to Ethiopia, he insisted for a unilateral ceasefire but Ahmed declined. Ahmed’s government also needs to be pressured through sanctions, the removal of preferential trade benefits, and expulsion from international organizations to allow for an independent international investigation of violations and the opening of the country to allow humanitarian assistance to flow freely into the affected region. Ahmed’s government should also be pressured into letting those most affected, such as women, be a part of the peace negotiations, initiate a framework for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that allows the affected to speak, and establish transparent and enforced punishments for perpetrators. On a broader scale, the international community needs to further commit to preventing the use of sexual violence against women as a weapon of war and establishing a framework for reparations. Without increased pressure from intervening countries and organizations, the death, destruction, and violations in Ethiopia may continue to escalate. Finally, Ethiopia’s conflict should remind the world that sexual violence is not only a consequence of war, but rather a weaponized tool intended to demoralize, terrorize, and damage individuals and communities.