How to address the sexual violence epidemic in Ethiopia?

To end sexual and gender-based violence for good, we need to acknowledge the problem is not tied only to conflict.

A Tigrayan refugee rape victim who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray sits for a portrait in eastern Sudan near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, on March 20, 2021. [AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty]

Earlier this month, a joint report by the United Nations and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) exposed how Ethiopia’s brutal and rapidly expanding war has been marked by widespread sexual and gender-based violence.

The survivor testimonies included in the report implicate all parties involved in the conflict: the Ethiopian National Defence Force, the Eritrean Defence Force, and the Tigray Special Forces.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, described the evidence she had seen – young and elderly alike being violated in front of children, gang rapes, sexual slavery, forced prostitution and the targeting of minors and the disabled – as a sign of the conflict’s “extreme brutality”.

Since the beginning of the conflict in November last year, more than 1,300 acts of rape have been reported to the authorities, with many more likely to have been unreported. At least half of the reported cases were gang rapes. The majority of the incidents documented between November 2020 and June 2021 “appear to have been committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.” The UN said it has since seen an increase in the number of reports of abuses by Tigrayan forces, as well as by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.

It has already been more than a year since the beginning of this bloody conflict, and with a growing alliance of troops advancing towards the capital, Addis Ababa, it is impossible to tell when the fighting will come to an end.

There is no end in sight to the suffering of millions of people who have been affected by this war. But for those who have been subjected to sexual violence in the past year, the path out of trauma is even more elusive. The evidence collated by the UN shows some to have been deliberately infected with HIV. Many are pregnant.

Moreover, sexual violence in Ethiopia is not a problem born out of this current conflict, and thus, it will not disappear once the guns are laid down.

Indeed, long before the beginning of atrocities in Tigray, sexual violence was already widespread across the country. With justice afforded only to those able to pay for it, and widely accepted customs validating misogynistic behaviour, many in Ethiopia have long been committing rape and other acts of gender-based violence with impunity. Ethiopia’s modern and progressive constitution explicitly stipulates the rights of women. Yet the constitution is commonly undermined by prevailing patriarchal social norms. One out of every 10 women in Ethiopia is a victim of abduction, early marriage, and, or, marital rape.

The ongoing brutal conflict and the harrowing testimonies published in the UN-EHRC report drew much-needed attention to the epidemic of sexual violence in Ethiopia.

But the international community’s response to this grave problem should not be limited to helping those who have been victimised during the conflict.

Any response or remedy should guarantee equal access to justice and psycho-social support for all survivors – including those who have been subjected to any form of sexual or gender-based violence outside the context of the armed conflict.

Moreover, steps need to be taken to ensure sexual and gender-based violence does not continue after the end of the war. To this end, educational programmes for potential perpetrators, aimed at changing perceptions and questioning customs harmful to women, should be established and financed across the country.

Not an Ethiopia-specific problem

Sexual and gender-based violence is a global problem. It is estimated that one in every three women across the globe experiences some form of physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime.

And while the spotlight is currently on Ethiopia due to its ongoing conflict, many of its neighbours in East Africa are also suffering from high levels of sexual and gender-based violence.

There are some common reasons behind the prevalence of sexual violence in East African countries.

Most East African countries rank at the top of the UN’s Gender inequality Index. In these countries, trust for the police and authorities are also low and the cost of legal recourse can be prohibitive. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for example, court fees for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence can reach the equivalent of up to $1,000 – an amount way beyond the financial means of most. All this results in acts of sexual and gender-based violence being committed widely, and with impunity.

International NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders, MSF) revealed that, in 2020, their teams provided assistance to nearly 11,000 people in DRC for physical and psychological conditions related to sexual violence.

In its report, MSF acknowledged that renewed conflict in Eastern DRC led to an increase in cases of sexual violence in the region. But it also underlined that “sexual violence in DRC is not only linked to armed conflict”. Just like it is the case in Ethiopia, thousands of women and girls in DRC are being subjected to sexual and gender-based violence every year – by their partners, relatives, and members of their own community – in areas not affected by any armed conflict.

The evidence collated by MSF further clarifies why sexual violence should not be treated merely as a by-product of conflict in countries like the DRC and Ethiopia.

To end the problem for good, it is crucial to implement bespoke methodologies to deal with armed and non-armed perpetrators of sexual violence. Initiatives aimed at preventing acts of sexual violence during armed conflict cannot succeed on their own. They need to be supported by initiatives, policies and advocacy aimed at eradicating the root causes of sexual violence – norms and customs that disadvantage women and girls, lack of access to justice, distrust in police and authorities etc

Men and boys also represent a minority of sexual violence victims, both in Ethiopia and the DRC, and for them, the social barriers to accessing support of any kind can be even higher. So any attempt to tackle sexual violence in these countries, or any other country in the region, should also include initiatives aimed at helping male victims.

The other main drivers of sexual and gender-based violence in the Horn of Africa include economic hardship, displacement, famine and natural disasters. It is critical to undertake a thorough analysis of each of these factors to assess their effect on rates of violence, and how each of them influences gender relations, norms and expectations. Without putting in this work, we cannot bring sexual violence in these countries to an end, and deliver justice and support to victims, even after the end of their conflicts.

Today, as the UN, the African Union and the international community at large work to bring Ethiopia’s devastating conflict to an end, any peace-building initiative must fully acknowledge conflict-related sexual violence as a continuation of the gendered realities confronting far too many women and girls across Ethiopia and the region.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.