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Female leaders call for end to sexual abuse in Tigray

25 June 2021


An Ethiopian woman who says that she was gang-raped by armed men is interviewed by Reuters in a hospital in Adigrat, Tigray, in March

An Ethiopian woman who says that she was gang-raped by armed men is interviewed by Reuters in a hospital in Adigrat, Tigray, in March

FEMALE religious, political, and other leaders around the world have signed an open letter calling for urgent action to stop the campaign of sexual violence against women and girls in Tigray, Ethiopia.

The signatories, all women of African descent, include the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin; Marsha de Cordova MP and Bell Ribeiro Addy MP; Nimco Ali, who campaigns against female genital mutilation; and Lona Wilson Lupai, of the World Council of Churches.

They express horror at women’s testimonies in Tigray, a region at war since the Ethiopia Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, a former Nobel Peace Prizewinner, sent in troops to oust the regional government of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front last November. Heavy fighting continues. Numerous accounts of massacres have emerged (News, 15 January), but journalists have been banned from the area.

Harrowing testimonies tell of the rape of girls as young as eight, and of grandmothers.

The open letter says: “Reports continue to emerge from Tigray of wives being raped in front of their husbands; mothers raped in front of their children and vice versa; family members forced to choose between raping female relatives or death, and of women themselves being forced to choose between rape or death.

“Several victims report their assailants boasted of ‘cleaning their bloodline’, while others arrive at medical facilities having suffered additional traumatic injuries to their reproductive organs inflicted by attackers to prevent them from bearing children.

“Researchers from Ghent University, in Belgium, have concluded that the campaign of mass rape fits ‘a pattern that has been evident in previous genocidal actions, and [is] reminiscent of events in Bosnia and Rwanda’.”

At least 10,000 women and girls are thought to have been raped during the war, researchers suggest.

The letter is being delivered to the African Union, the European Council, and the UN Security Council. It calls for an immediate ceasefire in the region, increased humanitarian assistance, and for attackers to be brought to justice.

The letter singles out the African Union, which, it says, has been silent on the sexual violence in war in Tigray.

“We are dismayed that African women and girls are once again the victims of conflict-related sexual violence, which in this instance is being permitted, and committed, by government forces charged, ostensibly, with enforcing the law. The fact such gross human violations are underway in the nation where the African Union is based, and amidst profound silence from African leaders, impugns the aspiration for ‘African solutions to African problems’,” the letter says.

A second letter has been signed by a former Prime Minister of New Zealand. Helen Clark, as well as a former UK Development Secretary, Hilary Benn, the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, and more than 60 campaigners. It calls on the UN Security Council to set up a tribunal to investigate allegations of sexual violence in Ethiopia’s northern region “as a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act of genocide”.

“Failure by the international community to act would undo the progress made so far in eliminating sexual violence in conflict,” the open letter reads; the signatories include more than 30 organisations from Tigray and the diaspora. “It would give a green light to regimes that deploy this barbaric weapon of war. And it would be a betrayal of the women of Tigray, whose courage we salute.”

The UN has said that 350,000 Tigrayans are living with famine, but Mr Abiy denied reports of any hunger in an interview with the BBC this week.

He said that he would “fix” the problems in Tigray. He faces his first electoral test as the country goes to the polls this week, although voting was postponed in Tigray owing to the conflict.

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