Mass rape used as weapon six months into war in Ethiopia’s Tigray

Accounts from Tigray say most perpetrators of rape are Ethiopian or Eritrean troops

As the war in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, hits the six-month mark, aid workers are warning that mass rapes are being used as a weapon to terrify civilians.

"Many of the women and men I spoke to in Tigray last month have recounted witnessing mass rape, or women getting sexually exploited. Women are having to engage in sexually exploitative relationships to survive, for food, shelter or a little bit of money," said Madiha Raza, a senior global communications officer with the International Rescue Committee. Ms Raza was speaking by phone from eastern Sudan, where she has been visiting refugee camps.

“Rape is definitely being used as a weapon of war and scare tactics are being used across the conflict,” she said, adding that the numbers are likely underreported because of the stigma around it. “Many people told me they had seen women get raped by multiple men and people are just being rounded up and killed.”

While she said the psychological impacts of this may be severe in the long-term, survivors’ immediate needs include emergency contraceptives, HIV drugs and medicine that prevents other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as treatment for physical injuries.

‘Harsh conditions’

“Because of the fact that medical facilities across the conflict have been basically or partially destroyed, accessing medical care is too hard,” said Ms Raza.

More generally, she said, there’s not enough funding for the entire humanitarian response. “In Tigray . . . [there are] very harsh conditions. The camps in which people are living, the resources are limited, people were arriving starving.”

In Sudan’s refugee camps, heavy rains are expected in the next few weeks, yet tens of thousands of people are living in tents. “Everyone’s very emotional about what they’ve left behind, the lives they’ve left behind,” said Ms Raza.

On November 4th, 2020, Ethiopia’s federal government declared a military offensive against the country’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is based in the northern region of roughly six million people. Ethiopia’s government, led by Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister Abiy Ahmed, said Tigrayan fighters attacked their military bases first.

‘Sexual slavery’

Communications were cut, making it hard to ascertain the full impact of the conflict, but almost 70,000 refugees fled across the border to eastern Sudan, while 2.2 million people are thought to be displaced internally and thousands killed.

Forces from neighbouring Eritrea also joined the fighting, in support of Ethiopia's federal government.

In April, Dr Fasika Amdeselassie, the top public health official for Tigray's new government-appointed interim administration, told Reuters news agency that women were being kept in "sexual slavery" – some for days or weeks at a time. "The perpetrators have to be investigated," she said.

Accounts from Tigray have identified most of the perpetrators of rape as Ethiopian or Eritrean troops.

While Ethiopia's minister for women, Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed, has said rapes had "without a doubt" occurred and would be investigated, in an email to Reuters, Eritrea's information minister Yemane Gebremeskel accused TPLF supporters of fabricating stories and "coaching 'sympathisers' to create false testimonies".