Report on Women’s Rights Violations in Eritrea HRCE Report 1/2017, 8 March 2017
This report was launched on the 8th of March 2017, on International Women’s Day, a day the world celebrates the courage, determination, resilience, strength and achievements of women of all status, while calling for an improved protection of women’s rights and promotion of gender equality.
Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE) is an Eritrean-led non-political human rights organization, located outside the country, which researches, reports and campaigns on violations of internationally-recognised human rights in Eritrea. HRCE is a founding member of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network, and associate member of CIVICUS, the global network of civil society organisations. HRCE has made submissions directly to the UN Human Rights Council to advocate for the human rights of Eritreans. It works closely with African and international human rights organizations, adding an Eritrean voice to their reporting over many years on gross and persistent human rights violations in Eritrea.
This Report on Women’s Rights in Eritrea is based on a new research conducted by HRCE for over six months in cooperation with Eritrean refugees in the Horn of Africa and Europe.
Discussion of “Woman’s Rights” in this document is in reference to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to which Eritrea is a party, and which it systematically violates.
The State of Eritrea is ruled by a government that functions without a constitution or parliament, and has been ruled by President Issayas Afewerki since 1991. The sole permitted political party is the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). There is no independent civil society, human rights organization or freedom of speech and dissenting opinion inside the country. The regime rules in spite of lack of elections and without any legitimacy to its power of authority. It is clear that, under such conditions, the rights of its citizens will not be and are not respected. Even though Eritrea ratified the CEDAW in 1995, committing the government to uphold international standards on the rights of girls and women, it has nevertheless systematically violated this convention. The government has not taken steps to protect or ameliorate living conditions of girls and women. Instead it has acted atrociously towards them.
This report examines the widespread and variety of violations suffered by women and girls in Eritrea, including psychological abuse, systematic sexual harassments and rape, detention and torture or ill-treatment, forced labour, and inability to study and work in their preferred schools and professions. The Report is compiled by Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE), based on research, face-to-face and telephone interviews of women who are victims of the above gross human rights violations within the context of existing institutional and policy structures of the regime in Eritrea. The institutions of a women’s union, education, and the military are the three key state agencies responsible for the grave human rights violations against Eritrea’s girls and women and should be subject to investigations. They execute and reinforce government policies of indoctrination, family separation, and systematic sexual abuse of girls and women.
In a country where rule of law is essentially inexistent, the rights of citizens will never be respected. Moreover, the rights of women are even more precarious due to, among other things, their physical vulnerability.
Eritrean women played a pivotal role during the harsh armed struggle for independence. Many sacrificed their lives for their country; others had to spend the rest of their lives suffering from physical and mental disability. Those who did not join the armed struggle stayed behind and farmed while their husbands fought and also faced hardships, including raising children as single parents. Others did not have children and spent their lives waiting for the return of their husbands. After independence was secured some husbands did not return. The women that returned from the armed struggle also faced a society reluctant to accept the equality their service to the country merited.
The struggle for independence was difficult on all levels as there was inadequate logistical and financial support for the war. Support came mainly from Eritreans living in the diaspora and, to a limited extent, from inside the country. Women, both in the country and abroad, supported the struggle by sending food for the soldiers, raising awareness and organizing fundraising events. The contribution Eritrean women made to the armed struggle is immeasurable but women continue to be marginalized by the current regime. During the armed struggle, women comprised 25% of the military but now only hold 3 out of 18 cabinet positions.
Eritrean women participated fully in the struggle for independence and earned their position in Eritrean society through hard work and persistence. However, after independence, the vision of social justice was extinguished, and the promises of equality were betrayed by the leader of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), Issayas Afewerki. Like all Eritreans, women became victims of the dictatorial regime.
Traditionally the rights of Eritrean women are respected under customary law, which protects them from any type of abuse, including sexual and physical.
The study begins with an examination of the abuse of Eritrean women by the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW), an organization that was created to promote, protect and advocate for women’s rights, and goes on to address different aspects of the widespread abuse of women’s human rights.
Key Indoctrination Institutions and Women’s Rights Violations
A. The National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW)
The NUEW was established in 1980, during the armed struggle. From its infancy, the Union has been used as a political and propaganda tool, apart from its supposed work of safeguarding the rights of women.
As a result, both during the armed struggle era and after independence, the Union has become one of the right wings of the PFDJ, a predecessor of the original independence movement the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). The NUEW has never been an independent entity; it entirely depends on allocations from the government’s budget to run its activities, and these activities continue to be strictly monitored by the government. All of its board members are loyal followers of the regime, and the president of the union is a member of the dysfunctional central assembly of the PFDJ.
Most of the officials within the union are appointed through nepotism and have to maintain absolute loyalty to the regime in all they do and say, being entirely subject to its control.
Among the many objectives of the union are a political propaganda campaign for laundering the image of the PFDJ, imposing pressure on women to send their children to compulsory and indefinite national service, infiltrating Eritrean communities throughout the country and the diaspora communities, and reporting back to the PFDJ officials and through them to the national intelligence. While it continues to function for the benefit of the regime, it is disheartening that the Union has done nothing to address claims of girls and women of sexual and physical abuse by military officials and high ranking officers.
B. The Education System
Eritrean women are exposed to sexual abuse from an early age. In the early 1990s, the Ministry of Education has established a summer work program whereby every upper secondary schooler is forced in summer work under the Ministry of Agriculture’s preferred villages and community works in remote locations.
The student’s summer works policy of the government exposes many young and under-age girls to sexual harassments and abuses. Summer work does not by itself constitute violation of human rights but it is not voluntarily and its aim is to keep young men and women away from the cities and villages so that to avoid any possible protests and peaceful demonstrations.
Furthermore, due to the lack of adequate secondary schools, particularly in rural areas, children are forced to walk long distances to get to the nearest school, which renders many vulnerable young girls to rape and many are forced to stop attending school at an early age. Sexual abuse is a taboo subject within Eritrean societies; many parents would not be willing to report sexual abuse for fear of stigma or isolation of the female child, yet the physical and psychological impact of it on young women is severe.
Among others, the results are:
a) Unwanted pregnancy: many choose to abort the pregnancy, but must deal with physical and legal issues. Abortion could result in infections and death. It could also result in fertility complications.
b) Social stigma: since it is taboo to bear a child outside of marriage, some young women decide to leave the country while they are pregnant and die in the process of crossing the border and others have drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe.
c) Committing suicide: due to the psychological, physical, and sexual abuses many women endure they commit suicide, bearing huge psychological problems and trauma for the entire household, including the children they leave behind.
Since 2006, the regime in Eritrea started sending grade 11 students to the military base, known as Sawa Military Training Center, to complete their final year of secondary education where they also take their national school leaving exams. Sawa is a very difficult place to live, particularly at such a young age, and it is much worse for women, especially when there is lack of access to adequate sanitary and hygiene services. The unfriendly weather, coupled with the intensive military training, exposes young women to physical and psychological hardships. In such a harsh environment, maintaining one’s academic performance is difficult. The results are poor performance in their final exams.
National Service is meant to last for eighteen months for each conscript. However, using all sorts of machinations, the government has extended it to a limitless period of physical exploitation. Eritrean military officers are notorious for the sexual and physical abuse of young women, which goes unpunished under the banner of National Service. Understandably, such conditions become a reason for some parents to force their female children to marry at a young age and or encourage them to leave home resulting in a life of exile.
1. The above conditions systematically deny young women access to education of their choice and obstructs their aspirations.
2. The government imposes a strict rule that if any student fails to go to the military training camp, the parents are detained. Usually, the wife is the one that is detained, as she is at home; the husband is either still in National Service, has left the country, or has already been martyred. In addition, the family will be denied any service until they reveal the whereabouts of their daughter or son.
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