Women contributed greatly to Eritrea. They were not rewarded for their efforts.During the Ethiopian occupation, women were heavily involved in the resistance movement. They fought alongside the men in the EPLF, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. Following Marxist philosophy, the EPLF decided that equality among men and women would be one of the focal points of their organization. They followed the slogan "Equality through equal participation".
Even though they touted women's equality, this was not the reality. Women were not exactly recognized. Instead, they wore androgynous clothing and inhabited a masculine role. Victoria Bernal explained this phenomena in her article "From Warriors to Wives: Contradictions of Liberation and Development in Eritrea" on page 135.
Gender equality was constructed by EPLF in part through the erasure of the feminine.26 This is reflected in the photographs of fighters that illustrate news articles and EPLF publications: women and men dress alike in khaki and rubber sandals and wear their hair “Afro” style. Indeed, one foreign visitor to the field reported difficulty distinguishing women from men.27 Says one ex-fighter, “I never knew myself as a woman. I thought of myself as a man. I faced the same problems as men.”28 The construction of women as not only equal to men but as male equivalents meant, however, that some profound issues of gender relations were not so much transformed by EPLF’s cultural revolution as repressed and rendered invisible.29Once Eritrea gained independence, women were expected to return to their traditional roles. Society treasured them as child-bearers and good wives, not as independent women. In addition, jobs were not available, and the communal style living of the EPLF—in which childcare, healthcare, and education were provided—was no longer there to support working mothers.
After independence, everyone—including women—who did not agree or conform with the actions of the new government were harassed.
Today, the Eritrean National Service (ENS) poses a unique threat to women in terms of abuse.Mandatory participation in the ENS requires young women to attend training camps rife with abuse and lacking protections. Women are at the mercy of their superiors, who often take advantage of their authority. Hiba Said from Ethiopia Insight shares the horrors women endured in her article "No peace for Eritrea's long-suffering female conscripts".
Survivors of military service say those who refused sexual relations to a military leader endured punishments such as being locked in shipping containers and underground cells, exposure to extremely hot temperatures, beaten, tortured, denied leave, deprived of food, suspension from trees, sent to dangerous locations such as the front line, and other cruel and unusual punishments.
Strong social stigma makes life difficult for rape victims.Rape is the most dishonorable thing that can happen to a woman in Eritrea. Getting married and having a family is the status quo and a source of pride; failure to live up to these expectations can result in social ostracism. Virginity is required for marriage, so when someone is raped, marriage is no longer a possibility for them. As a result, women are often pressured the attacker.
The Eritrean woman I interviewed told me that men who have been rejected will rape women to force them into marriage.
Fleeing is incredibly dangerous.It is dangerous for women to flee Eritrea. Getting caught can lead to indefinite detention without trial. Ciham Ali Ahmed is one young women who attempted to flee and was detained. She was 15 when she was arrested in 2012, and no one has heard from her since. Her situation is unique because she is a US citizen. The US is aware of the situation but has not publicly shared their plan of action. CNN reporter Stephanie Busari shared a statement from Ciham's father in her article: "Jailed at 15 she dreamed of being a fashion designer. No trial and 6 years later, she's still missing".
"Because she is US born... I really thought the government of the United States would scream bloody murder but no one is speaking for her. It's very, very disappointing. She is a United States citizen but because she grew up in Eritrea and because her parents are Eritreans, then I guess she is not fully American," he says.
The detention centers are horrific places. In the following clip, witnesses for the UN Human Rights Council share the torture they encountered:
Detention is just one of many things to fear when fleeing Eritrea. Women must avoid or survive harsh conditions, human trafficking, kidnapping, rape, refugee camps, and harassment from the government. When I spoke with a woman who fled Eritrea as a teenager during Ethiopia's occupation, she explained the hardship of leaving her home. She left Eritrea with a friend by walking for two weeks to Sudan. She considered herself lucky because they did not encounter major trouble along the way, like attacks by hyenas.
Various reports share the fates of those who were not as lucky. Refugees, particularly female refugees, are vulnerable to kidnapping and human trafficking. In her article "Captured, raped, ransomed: the kidnappers preying on Eritrean refugees", Sally Hayden recounted the story of two teenage girls who had a terrifying experience when crossing the border into Sudan. When they crossed the border the girls were tricked, kidnapped, and held for ransom.
For six weeks, Ella was locked in a room in her captor’s family home, a “nice house, with electricity and lights”. Both girls were raped. The ransom set was half a million Eritrean nakfa, or more than $33,000 (£23,852).
“I thought they would kill me,” says Ella. Each day, men would beat and assault her with a plastic stick. They would also press a phone to her ear, so her family could hear her pain. She’d try not to cry or whimper, which made the men hit her harder.
This is common practice for kidnappers; they call the victims family as they attack or rape them. Kidnappers also commonly increase the amount of ransom they demand, making it nearly impossible for families to save their loved ones. The American Team for Displaced Eritreans shares the stories of kidnapping victims on their website, eritreanrefugees.org. Read the following account by a victim they interviewed:
E. Tesfay – Age 26
Two girls in our group were gang-raped; one became pregnant; one had her breasts burned. Eight of the 24 died from torture – I saw them die, and I was forced to sleep next to their corpses. Seven who couldn’t pay were sold to other traffickers. The ten others, including myself, agreed to and were able to pay. Some of my relatives in Eritrea raised money from neighbors and friends – everyone they knew helped, even by selling their houses. But then our captors demanded an additional $33,000 from each of us. So we decided to try an escape, because we knew we would die anyway. We cut our chains with a hard stone, then we escaped through the metal walls of the shed in which we were held.
Upon crossing the Eritrean border, many women end up in refugee camps and/or continue the dangerous journey to Europe.
There are many female activists calling for change in Eritrea.Eritrean women are leading the charge in the movement to free Eritrea. They are calling for international action, providing assistance to those fleeing, and getting information into and out off Eritrea. Listen to Meron share how she helps people fleeing Eritrea.
Venessa Tsehaye is the young activist behind the One Day Seyoum campaign. Her uncle is a part of the G15 and has been in prison since 2001. She is fighting for him and other Eritreans to be free from the oppressive government.