International Women's Day, March 8 , is intended as a day of celebration for the economic and social achievements of women around the world, especially, as designated by the United Nations, in terms of political and human rights.
Let us examine the human rights situation in relation to Eritrean women:
It is an established fact that women displaced by armed conflict – often living alone with their children – are frequently exposed to sexual violence, discrimination and intimidation. Many face poverty and social exclusion as well. International humanitarian law therefore includes specific provisions protecting women, for example when they are pregnant or as mothers of young children. Since Eritrea, however, is a law unto itself, and the ‘armed conflict’ has been over for decades, it is the phony ‘threat’ from Ethiopia used as a justification for national conscription which produces the same ill effects on Eritrean women. Women are forced into national service, where they are treated as subhuman, or are separated from their menfolk on the outside with no provision made for the most basic survival needs for themselves or their children.
This does not, of course, stop the Eritrean government from celebrating International Women's Day along with other nations. The repressive leader, Isaias Afewerki, believes strongly in ‘putting on a show’ for outsiders (who, paradoxically, are seldom allowed to visit except in the most controlled conditions) and for broadcast on the censored television channels; these celebrations also serve to salve the consciences of those in Diaspora who would be the only ones actually able to avail themselves of any progressive women’s rights.
Even the USA Embassy posted the following on its Asmara website last year, re Eritrean celebrations of this day: “Eritrean women were reminded (sic) and honoured for their equitable role in the armed struggle.” The use of the word ‘equitable’ is singularly offensive in this context, unless it means that women in Eritrea are expected to suffer not only as much as their tortured and murdered menfolk but even more so, with the extra burden of hungry children to feed and sexual predators to fend off.
It is compulsory for Eritrean women to serve in the national service where they are not treated as equals with the male soldiers, who themselves are there against their wishes and maltreated, but used as sex objects by the military officers and made to work as housemaids-cum-slaves. Women are subjected to abuses and sexual harassment by officers in the training/concentration camps, prisons and the army. Refusal to meet the demands of the officers usually results in torture and reassignment to places with extremely hostile living and working conditions.
In most Eritrean ethnic groups recruitment of women into the military is traditionally not accepted. Women thus recruited are therefore shunned as suitable wives and mothers. They are maltreated by the army and ostracised by the rest of Eritrean society. Paradoxically, childbirth provides the only release from national service into a socially and economically rejecting society. Some Eritrean women marry early simply to avoid the national service. Many victims of rape in the military contract HIV/AIDS and end up as single mothers. Attempting to escape this cycle of sexual exploitation and abuse leads to more of the same in transit, and for those fortunate enough to reach the end of their journey still alive more of the same awaits them in their new country; some die during their journeys as they are smuggled out to Sudan and Ethiopia; some are forced to change their religion, abandon their culture and dress like the Arabs who insult them and physically abuse them.
Today’s celebrations in Eritrea will not mention how many girls and women quit education because they see no future in it as they will end up in the endless national service, and the final year of secondary school is delivered in military training/concentration camps.
The poverty that is prevalent in the country has caused women, many of whom are mothers, to shoulder the multiple responsibilities of trying to provide the social and economic needs of the family. Are they rewarded, as men and women would be in many democracies, with a living wage, a decent home, and social services provided by their hard-earned taxes? Forget about it. The reward is hunger, disease, sexual harassment, social isolation, and any form of humiliation that takes the fancy of the mainly male officials.
In Eritrea women act as mothers and breadwinners, but not in any empowering and egalitarian way; they get employed as daily labourers, collect firewood, engaging in petty trade either in their towns/villages including their surrounding or even going as far as Tesseney and Assab, only to have their goods confiscated unless they cooperate with officials (male, of course) by performing sexual acts or bribing them. The government exploits their poverty by sending some women to work in the Arab countries at cheap labour prices with a big portion of their income going to the government. After exhausting all the possibilities many women resort to begging activities. Is this social degradation something for Eritrea to celebrate on International Women’s Day?
Eritrean women trek hundreds of kilometers from one village to another begging while at the same time taking care of their families. Yet they suffer imprisonment and torture at the hands of the government security agencies for being beggars. Furthermore, they are forced by the government to participate in what are called development campaigns’ such as soil and water conservation activities; they and their children are made to work in the fields which have been seized by the military government; they are forced to participate in numerous meetings of the government, PFDJ, National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) and National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS) with obligatory financial monthly subscription to the PFDJ, NUEW and NUEYS. Indoctrination is preceded by and followed by malnutrition. These meetings and financial obligations that are paid to these institutions compete for time and resources with other activities and family needs.
So, when you read about International Women’s Day in Eritrea, don’t forget who’s paying for it: The lactating women whose children are going hungry, whose pregnancies are often the cause of rape or some other life-or-death transaction. They are not only paying for it with their broken hearts, their tortured souls and the literally bleeding soles of their feet - they also have to pay for it with Nakfas. The celebration is funded by the exploited. This is the living hell Eritrea celebrates: International women-living-in-hell day.
The logical thing to do is to try to leave. But it’s not only the men who attempt this who are imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Their wives and sisters and mothers and daughters are all treated as equally guilty in the eyes of Eritrean law, and a price is exacted, physical and financial. The women go to jail and concentration camps even with their children, on allegations of attempting to escape from the country or for failures of their husbands, sons or daughters to report to their units or on allegations of escaping of husbands, sons or /daughters attempting escape from the country- they work on forced labour or otherwise pay 10 – 50,000 Nakfa (USD 1 = 40-45 Nakfa in the black market and 15 Nakfa in the Banks).
While maternity benefits are paid by enlightened employers in most civilised countries, the only benefits of maternity to an Eritrean mother who has been raped and treated as a slave, including sex slavery in the military, is that of possibly staying alive, of possibly being able to feed her children, and dreaming that one day she will escape to a country where being part of a family is not something that will be used against you by the mafia that Eritrea calls a government.
Human Rights Concern – Eritrea
8 March 2010