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Opinion | In Ethiopia’s Tigray and Across Africa, Rape Has Been Used as a Weapon of War

BusinessOpinion | In Ethiopia’s Tigray and Across Africa, Rape Has Been Used as a Weapon of War

Women in Tigray were subjected to unimaginable crimes during the war and its ongoing, tumultuous aftermath. Over 100,000 women in Tigray are thought to have experienced conflict-related sexual violence. Health experts recently estimated that over 40 percent of Tigray’s women experienced some type of gender-based violence during the war. Most of them — a whopping 89.7 percent — never received any postviolence medical or psychological support.

Survivors have reported that foreign objects were inserted in their bodies, that their children were murdered in front of them, that they were forced into sexual slavery, starved and intentionally infected with H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted pathogens. One victim recalled being told that she was being raped because “a Tigrayan womb should never give birth.” Some survivors are now taking care of children fathered by their rapists. Others are likely becoming new survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, with little hope of recourse from the government.

Unfortunately, the women of Tigray are not alone. Conflict-related sexual violence remains a persistent issue across the Horn of Africa. United Nations experts have expressed alarm about the reported widespread use of rape by the Rapid Support Forces in Sudan’s ongoing war, a horror eerily reminiscent of the genocide in Darfur, where women experienced sexual violence en masse. In Eritrea, Tigray’s neighbor to the north, women conscripted into the federal army have reportedly been subjected to sexual violence during compulsory national service. In Somalia, to the east, women living in refugee camps and centers for internally displaced people face high numbers of gender-based violence and are often targeted by predatory clan militias and soldiers. Outside the Horn, the Democratic Republic of Congo has witnessed alarming levels of sexual violence during its ongoing conflict, with especially high numbers of child victims.

It’s a practice that continues to be used with impunity, despite international pledges to eliminate it. In 2022, President Biden released a memorandum on conflict-related sexual violence, pledging to strengthen the U.S. government’s commitment to combat and hold accountable those responsible for such violence. The European Union continues to release statements on the need to end conflict-related sexual violence worldwide. And U.N. Resolution 1325, passed nearly 25 years ago, calls on “all parties to conflict” to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly sexual abuse, in the context of armed conflict. Yet the violence and impunity continue.

To put an end to conflict-related sexual violence, women’s voices must be included at every level of decision making. Research shows that when women participate in a peace process, it lasts longer; maintaining peace is one way to ensure that conflict-related atrocities do not continue. In the context of Tigray, this will require the active engagement and participation of women in designing and carrying out protection measures, shaping legal and judicial actions and contributing to sustainable peace-building initiatives. One good example to follow would be Liberia, where women, including survivors, spearheaded movements that played a critical role in ending a brutal civil war characterized by extensive rape.

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