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Over the last three decades even though implementations of the CEDAW, Maputo Protocol, Millennium Development Goals, and other legal instruments signed by states facilitated efforts towards equality, women in East Africa and the Horn of Africa continue to face numerous challenges. Gender-based violence, including domestic violence, sexual assault, and harmful traditional practices remains a pervasive issue, hindering women's well-being. Access to economic opportunities and financial resources is still limited for many women, perpetuating gender disparities and economic inequalities.

Refugees who fled the fighting in Tigray stand in line for supplies at the Um Rakuba camp near the Sudan border. Source: Reuters

In the current context, conflict and war have disrupted progress made towards gender equality and women empowerment. Therefore, when examining crises, whether they are of natural or human-made origin, it is crucial to adopt an intersectional and gender-sensitive perspective. Such an approach allows us to analyze the diverse effects of these emergencies on different groups of society. In times of conflict and war, women are placed at increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, abduction, and forced marriage. These acts of violence are used as weapons of war to instill fear, control communities, and exert power over women's bodies. 

Displacement is another major consequence of crisis and conflict in the region, and women are particularly affected. Displaced women often face inadequate access to basic necessities such as food, water, and healthcare. Conflict-related famine often leads to food shortages, reduced agricultural production, and disrupted food distribution systems. Women often bear the burden of ensuring food security and nutrition for their families, making them particularly vulnerable during periods of famine. Furthermore, women are exposed to exploitation, human trafficking, and other forms of abuse.

Women as a Weapon of War

In November 2020, a war broke out between the federal government of Ethiopia and the regional government of Tigray and an estimated 600,000 lives were lost according to researchers from Belgium's Ghent University. The report released by the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) on September 18th, 2023 describes the Tigray war as marked by widespread and systematic sexual violence. 

These acts were carried out against women and children, and often involved multiple perpetrators from different armed groups, suggesting systemic collaboration. As stated by Amnesty International’s report“ Since the onset of the armed conflict, Ethiopian government forces have been supported by the neighboring Amhara Region Special Police Force (ASF), local militias from the Amhara region, and the Eritrean Defense Forces”

Mona Lisa (18) recuperates in a hospital in Mekelle, Ethiopia. She survived an attempted rape that left her with seven gunshot wounds and an amputated arm. Source: New York Times

Various subsequent reports also found that these Eritrean Defense Forces perpetrated crimes under international law, and other human rights abuses in the Tigray region; these include rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual violence and atrocities against Tigrayan women and girls. Most women were subjected to unprotected multiple-perpetrator-rape, or individual perpetrator vaginal, anal, and oral rape, often in front of their children.  

Several of these acts were characterized by the deliberate infliction of burns and insertion into the genitals of foreign objects, including daggers, stones, plastic, and nail clippers. Despite suffering numerous injuries, survivors of rape and sexual slavery post-sexual violence care or any comprehensive medical care was not accessible. 

The war in Tigray has also led to a sharp increase in child marriage and gender-based violence in the home. Many girls have been forced to marry to support their families or to escape violence. Gender-based violence in the home has also increased with as many women and girls confined to their homes due to the war.

The War on Women in Sudan

In the neighboring Sudan, violent clashes erupted on 15 April 2023 between army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his former deputy Mohamed Hamdan "Hemedti" Dagalo, who currently leads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Both the Rapid Support Force and Sudanese Armed Force have been accused of indiscriminate shelling of residential areas, targeting civilians, and obstructing and commandeering essential aid. According to Alex De Waal’s article on Chatham House “Sudan’s war is also a vortex of transnational conflicts and global rivalries that threaten to set a wider region aflame”.

In such a proxy war context, according to UN sources, more than six million people have been forcibly displaced inside and outside the country since fighting began in mid-April 2023. UN experts have published reports on the widespread use of gender-based violence, including sexual violence, as a tool of war to subjugate, terrorize, break, and punish women and girls, and as a means of punishing specific communities targeted by the RSF and allied militias. 

Many people have struggled to receive treatment since the conflict broke out on 15 April. Source: AFP

These reports encompassed instances of sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, trafficking, rape, and actions resembling enforced disappearances. Some of these incidents potentially had motivations rooted in race, ethnicity, and politics, particularly concerning individuals expressing opposition to the presence of armed groups in certain regions. More recent reports have surfaced regarding the coerced involvement of women and girls in forced prostitution and forced marriages. Nonetheless, it is gravely concerning that the scale and seriousness of violence committed against women and girls are often underreported, as many survivors cannot come forward due to a culture of fear of reprisals and stigma.

Geopolitical Dynamics

The geopolitical dynamics in East Africa have witnessed notable shifts due to assertive efforts to secure access to the sea. This pursuit has reshaped alliances within the region, these alliances have the potential to influence regional dynamics and contribute to ongoing conflicts. The evolving geopolitics in East Africa highlight the interconnectedness of regional relationships and the potential implications for peace and stability.

In the face of such crises and the concerning backslide of democracy, the protection and advancement of women's rights have come under significant threat for the entire region of East Africa and the whole continent. Coupled with the increased normalization of conflict-related sexual violence, the erosion of democratic principles and institutions inhibits the progress made towards gender equality, leaving women vulnerable to discrimination, violence, and marginalization. 

That is why it is fair to say, that women’s bodies have become increasingly politicized in the continent leaving women and girls brutally vulnerable.  For instance, A bill aimed at decriminalizing female genital mutilation (FGM) has been tabled in the Gambia's parliament. Activists in Kenya say the country is experiencing increasing rates of femicide, with a general atmosphere of fear spreading across as justice systems remain ineffective in catalyzing positive peace - which cannot be achieved without gender equality. 

Across contexts in other regional states such South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, DRC or Uganda, women’s bodies continue to be a battlefield for war, militarization, politics, patriarchy and undemocratic agendas. Women are systematically excluded from decision-making tables including peace negotiations, politics, diplomacy, peace-building and DDRs. As a result, it is important to ask “Why inspire the inclusion of women in peace-building?”  

Alaa salah an activist chanting the tunes of revolution. Source: Lana Haroun on X

Inspire the Inclusion of Women in Peace-building 

The most important answer for women's representation in peace-building is grounded in the fundamental principle of human rights: “Women have the right to participate in decision-making processes that shape their lives and future”.

With low or non-existent representation in many peace-building efforts on the African continent, women have continued to be used as tools in conflicts, experiencing gender-based violence, displacement, and other forms of exploitation. However, their victimhood should not overshadow their potential as peacebuilders and political actors. It is key to bear in mind that women also play active and passive roles in war, whether in the war economy, by being forced into combat as militarization increases, and as humanitarian actors providing support across conflict-affected areas, hence they are key in a diverse range of forums and must not be excluded from consensus-building efforts. 

A grave example of this exclusion was seen during the Pretoria peace agreement between the Ethiopian Federal Government and the Tigray Regional Government that took place in November 2022. This is a disappointing irony for a war characterized by its sexual violence against women and girls. The implementation of this agreement, including the ‘transitional justice process’, continues to be criticized by human rights experts as gender insensitive and a co-opted process that does incorporate mechanisms to account for the nature of crimes committed.  Hence the agreement can, and must, be enhanced.

In the writing of Filsan Abdi (former Minister of Women and Children Affairs) “Ethiopian women and girls, who have been excluded from the peace process, must be given a seat at the table. As we have seen in Sudan, fragmented peace processes sidelining women lead to limited agreements perpetuating the cycle of war”. 

In Sudan, although women, particularly young women, were at the forefront of the movement for democracy, activists have exposed the failure international and Sudanese bodies to secure the vision set out by the country’s women-led pro-democracy movement. Women were hence tokenized, the minimum quota was not met, and social discourse was inflammatory to discredit their efforts, organization and contributions, further alienating them from effecting change in crucial processes.

In Sudan and elsewhere previous experiences provide valuable insights into the critical significance of women's activism and participation in driving the success of democracy-building efforts in Sudan. Peace requires participation, effective participation of women.

The Women's Peace and Security agenda of the UNSC recognizes that participation is a key pillar to a gender-sensitive peace-building process. The WPS agenda further emphasizes increasing women's representation and leadership in peace negotiations, peacekeeping missions, and post-conflict reconstruction efforts. It identifies that women bring unique perspectives, experiences, and skills that contribute to more comprehensive and effective peace-building strategies.

That is why, the meaningful inclusion of women beyond tokenization in peace-building processes is not only a matter of justice and equality but also a pragmatic approach to building sustainable peace in East Africa. Through including women in peace-building, the cycle of instrumentalization can be broken. 

In the women's month of March 2024, war is still ravaging Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo where women and children continue to be the most affected. The peace agreement in Ethiopia is premised on shaky ground as conflict and forceful occupation of land continue.  Somalia has had its fair share of the Al-Shabab crude violence and all the East African and Horn of countries still report high cases of domestic violence.

In this state of affairs, when including women's voices, peace-building efforts can proactively address these concerns, promoting gender equality, and building a more inclusive and resilient society. This can lead to the dismantling of discriminatory practices, the promotion of women's rights, and the establishment of social structures that ensure equal opportunities and protections for all. 

Finally, in alignment with this year’s International Women’s Day theme inspiring the active inclusion of women, East African societies can begin to foster intersectional, just, and resilient peace that benefits generations to come if women's effective inclusion is strengthened.


Andariya's editorial team