“It's really important that people understand the distinction between gender-based violence in normal settings and a weaponized one…When it is weaponized, the state is involved with its full apparatus. Implicitly or explicitly, soldiers are ordered to rape. Rape and the trauma of the victim become weapons in the aggressor’s arsenal of destruction in the service of a broader strategy or political objective.”
Sexual violence against Tigrayan women has been described as the sinister signature of the war in Ethiopia, a brutal defining element of the conflict.
Yet there was no mention of this in the November 3rd, 2022, peace treaty between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, says Mèaza Gidey Gebremedhin, a US-based Tigrayan activist in exile.
“The fact that this wasn't even part of the conversation goes to show the bigger problem, the problem that women are not at the decision-making table,” she said in an interview. "They're not part of the discussion. They're not consulted or adequately represented."
While Mèaza hopes that the leadership of Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, will be gender sensitive and consult women going forward, she cannot fathom the Ethiopian courts delivering justice to the women of Tigray.
At least 120,000 women have been sexually assaulted during the two-year conflict, according to an official of the Tigray Health Bureau. Mèaza said the numbers could be much higher. Sexual assaults have also been documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN Population Fund and media reports.
“The women of Tigray deserve an accountability mechanism that will conduct a thorough investigation, fair trial, and render effective remedies for the atrocities committed against them,” she said. “The fight for justice when it comes to survivors shouldn’t be left only to governments.”
Mèaza had a humble childhood and was orphaned at age nine. She still lives by her mother’s advice that “no matter what circumstances I'm in, I always need to fight for myself, for my place in this world, and to help others."
Her fervour for activism was also shaped by the disappearance of her sister Mesret during the 1998-2000 border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Mesret lived in Asmer, the capital of Eritrea. As the war escalated, many Tigrayan residents were kidnapped and detained, with their whereabouts unknown to this day. Mesret is one of them.
“I would go to the streets with my mother, hoping to see my sister dropped off from one of the buses that were transporting Ethiopians from Eritrea,” Mèaza said. “We never saw her.”
These were among events that sparked her interest in politics and justice and studies in law and international affairs.
At age 16 she spent her small salary from working at a local radio station on underprivileged children in her neighbourhood. Studying on a university scholarship in South Korea she raised funds via social media for visually impaired and orphaned children in her home region, Tigray.
Mèaza returned to Ethiopia the day she graduated in 2017 and teamed up with like-minded young women from different parts of the country to found Siiqqee Scholars, a women’s rights initiative with a plan to mentor young women changemakers.
In 2019, Mèaza cofounded Yikono, the first independent feminist grassroots movement in Tigray, dedicated to educating the community about gender equality.
She was in the US for graduate studies when the Ethiopian government and allied Eritrean forces attacked the people of Tigray in November 2020.
She joined other members of the diaspora to help establish Omna Tigray, an organization promoting education-based advocacy to halt the war and help survivors.
She counts among their successes lobbying for the establishment by the United Nations Rights Council of the independent UN International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia; and raising funds to assist displaced families and refugees sheltering in neighbouring Sudan.
Activism has shown her a need for public education about weaponized sexual violence. “It's really important that people understand the distinction between gender-based violence in normal settings and a weaponized one,” Mèaza said.
“When it is weaponized, the state is involved with its full apparatus. Implicitly or explicitly, soldiers are ordered to rape. Rape and the trauma of the victim become weapons in the aggressor’s arsenal of destruction in the service of a broader strategy or political objective.”
Drawing that distinction is necessary to establish grounds for state accountability for war crimes, she said, and will help prove genocidal intent. She said Ethiopia intended to “exterminate the population” of Tigray.
During exile in the US Mèaza has endured death threats and was confronted by a gunman at one public event in broad daylight. The gunman was arrested. Mèaza lives carefully and she advises other activists to be sure to guard their personal health and safety.
She remains apprehensive about civilians in Tigray, as no humanitarian aid channels opened immediately after the November 3rd truce, and many process questions remain unanswered with Eritrean and Ethiopian forces still illegally occupying parts of Tigray.
“Tigray has been under a complete communications blackout and a state-imposed siege since the war began a little over two years ago and you have over six million people whose resources have been looted and obliterated,” she said. “At the same time, the farmers haven't been able to farm their lands and haven't had any access to humanitarian aid. People are starving and dying of hunger, of diseases that otherwise would have been easily cured.”
She is a strong advocate of global solidarity among women.
“Unless we all do this collectively, the small change that we might be able to drive in our corners would not bring about lasting change,” she said. “So, I urge advocates and activists globally to see beyond the boxes that politicians and others put us in and think more broadly, strategically and join forces.”
Mèaza Gebremedhin is a feminist activist who helped establish Omna Tigray, an organization promoting education-based advocacy to halt war against the Tigray people in Ethiopia and to help survivors.
ABOUT THE 16 DAYS CAMPAIGN
The 2022 Nobel Women's Initiative's contribution to the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence Campaign features interviews with women activists about their experiences advocating for peace and women’s rights in conflict zones. In Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, these human rights defenders pursue peace as one pathway to reducing sexual and other forms of gender-based violence.