“I don’t know if they realized I was a person”: The Denial of Weaponized Rape in Tigray

“I don’t know if they realized I was a person”: The Denial of Weaponized Rape in Tigray

In her Breakfast Club Interview on the genocidal war on Tigray, Millete Birhanemaskel discerningly observed, “every genocide has a signature, and this one is sexual violence.” These words ring truer by the day as more accounts of the weaponized Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) against the women and men of Tigray by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces continue to emerge. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) revealed that at least 22,500 Tigrayan women and girls would seek medical care for SGBV before the end of the year. Given the stigma surrounding SGBV and the near-complete destruction of health services in Tigray, we know this is likely a very conservative estimate. Nevertheless, more reports are coming out that shed light on the magnitude of the crisis. The latest, from Amnesty International, details horrific atrocities that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Consistent with previous reports from the UN and Red Cross, the Amnesty report underscores the appalling brutality of these attacks. Numerous reports have additionally emphasized that SGBV has been utilized as a weapon of war to terrorize, humiliate, and destroy Tigrayan society. 

As more horrific details slowly trickle out of Tigray, which has been under a complete communication black-out, many on the Ethiopian government’s side have cast doubt or taken to openly attacking those that call attention to these atrocities. 

Samuel Getachew, an Ethiopian journalist, was among the first to deny and undermine the validity of the stories of Tigrayan survivors, stating that “even before, the region [Tigray] has been known for being unfriendly to women.” While Samuel himself is widely criticized for this abrogation of duty, this talking point has been amplified by those who want to justify and disregard the suffering of Tigrayan women and girls. The most dangerous adoption of this position comes from  Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration, despite mounting evidence and international humanitarian recognition of the violences committed. From Ethiopia’s Attorney General, Gedion Timothewos, advising everyone to take survivors’ accounts “with a grain of salt,” to Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States explicitly declaring that survivors’ testimonies are “not true” —the entire government apparatus has mobilized to silence survivors. 

This coordinated attack from the pro-government camp is especially egregious, as it misrepresents and weaponizes the activism of Tigrayan women to justify and downplay the widespread SGBV committed by the invading forces. It suggests, erroneously, that the presence of movements for gender equality in Tigray is proof that gender relations in pre-war Tigray were worse than elsewhere in the country or comparable to the atrocities inflicted since November 2020. 

It is vital to note that this line of argument does not come from genuine concern for the lives and safety of women in Tigray. If it did, its proponents would, first and foremost, be concerned about the verified reports of rape, gang rape, and sexual slavery that health professionals, humanitarian organizations, and international media outlets have reported. Most accounts concur that the weaponized SGBV in Tigray has been among the most atrocious in contemporary history. The United Nations (UN) has declared that SGBV has been utilized as a weapon of war, while doctors who treated survivors have labelled it genocidal rape. The numbers, as staggering as they are, do not convey the full magnitude of the damage. Tigrayan women and girls were kidnapped and held in sexual slavery for days or even weeks. Survivors report brutal gang-rapes by as many as 30 soldiers, and being forced to choose between rape or death. Assaults were often carried out in full view of survivors’ families. Tigrayan men were forced with the threat of physical violence, pain, or  death to rape their own family members. Perpetrators also explicitly conveyed their genocidal intention, telling survivors that they had come to cleanse their blood lines. Recent reports indicate that Tigrayan boys and men have also been targeted in these attacks. Altogether, these accounts confirm that SGBV was systematic and deliberate, designed to terrorize, humiliate, and dismantle Tigrayan society. While even a casual perusal of published reports indicates the sheer brutality, cruelty, and sadism of the weaponized SGBV against Tigrayans, it is vital to remember that what has been reported is likely only the tip of the iceberg. 

It is this industrial-scale, genocidal, weaponized SGBV that government supporters want to downplay by pointing to the purported prevalence of SGBV in Tigray prior to the war. The fact is that nothing—not in Tigray, not in Ethiopia, not in the world—to the extent and degree of what has been reported during the war on Tigray has been recorded in recent history. The genocide apologists provide not one shred of evidence to substantiate their claim of any culture in Tigray that is more ‘unfriendly’ to women than any other part of Ethiopia. Ethiopia, in general, can be characterized as ‘unfriendly’ to women, with its high rates of SGBV, Female Genital Cutting (FGC), and partner abuse. 

A 2006 report by BBC identified Ethiopian women as the most abused in the world. However, there is little evidence to suggest that this was a uniquely frequent or especially pervasive problem in Tigray in particular. Rather, those who wish to dismiss the suffering of women and girls in Tigray point to the presence of strong, grassroots organizations that were fighting for women’s rights and equality in Tigray as evidence of this supposed ‘unfriendly’ culture. For example, the admirable and ground-breaking work of feminist organizations in Tigray, like Yikuno, is weaponized by genocide apologists to dismiss reports of weaponized SGBV in Tigray. The presence of grassroots movements that dared to challenge the patriarchal structures that affect women in Tigray and all across Ethiopia, is not proof of a uniquely hostile culture in Tigray. The only thing it proves is the presence of young women with the courage, capacity, and tenacity to fight for a more just and equal society. 

While this obfuscation by the pro-government camp is disappointing, it is not surprising. What is shocking, however, is the absolute silence of the self-proclaimed feminists of Ethiopia. Not one of the several prominent feminist organizations in Ethiopia has publicly released an unequivocal condemnation of weaponized rape, called for justice for the women and girls of Tigray, or defended the work of feminist organizations in Tigray. The silence of Ethiopian feminists – both as organizations and individuals – on the weaponized SGBV in Tigray and the consequent weaponization of the work of feminist organizations in Tigray is a monumental betrayal of the central tenets of feminism. The belief in the social, political, and economic equality of all genders, the foundation of contemporary feminism, requires recognition of women’s full humanity, right to life, and security. The very humanity of Tigray’s women and girls has been violated by the actions of the Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces who have carried out unspeakable acts of rape, gang-rape, sexual slavery, and sexual mutilation. 

A Tigrayan survivor who was gang-raped told Amnesty, “They raped me one after the other…I don’t know if they realized I was pregnant. I don’t know if they realized I was a person,” showing how systematic the attempt to dehumanize the women and girls of Tigray was. Yet, when these egregious attacks took place, not a word was heard from Ethiopian feminists—not even from those organizations that profess to work to raise awareness about sexual assault such as #MeTooEthiopia or Setaweet. Having conversations about gender equality, while ignoring the over 22,500 Ethiopian citizens in Tigray who are grappling with the physical and psychological aftermath of weaponized rape in a context of a decimated health infrastructure, is farcical. 

Not only have these organizations not spoken up, advocated, or applied pressure to confront these attacks against women and girls in Tigray, they have made no efforts to combat the dangerous weaponization of feminist organizations work to downplay weaponized SGBV in Tigray. The silence of Ethiopian feminists on the attacks against Yikuno and other grassroots organizations is doubly disappointing, given that they are supposed to be engaged in the same struggle. The women of Tigray, through Yikuno and other organizations, were engaged in the noble project of improving gender relations, similar to other feminist groups in Ethiopia. They organized to protect themselves, defend one another, and assert their right to live free as equal members of society. Yikuno and similar organizations in Tigray were part of a global feminist struggle to create a safer world for women. A struggle Ethiopian feminists profess to be a part of. A struggle that deserves praise. Instead, the Abiy regime, its supporters, and sycophants—deeply rooted in a logic of patriarchy and sexism—choose to vilify this work to justify their use of women’s bodies as battlefields in their genocidal war. 

The same strand of violent patriarchy and moral bankruptcy that set the stage for weaponized SGBV in Tigray is also at work in the pro-government camp’s ongoing efforts to weaponize the work of organizations like Yikuno. That this toxic patriarchal messaging of the pro-government camp has not been condemned by the self-proclaimed feminists of Ethiopia reveals yet another layer of societal failure and disregard for women’s lives. The dangerous rhetoric that has been utilized by the pro-government side is not only intended to downplay and legitimize the inhumane action we are seeing from Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara militia forces, but also serves to reinforce patriarchal structures that intimidate women from organizing to challenge injustice. To those sharp enough to read between the lines, this is a warning to all women of Ethiopia: if you dare to organize to challenge injustice or demand equal rights, the time may come when we will weaponize these efforts to justify the atrocities we commit or enable others to commit against you. 

This should be a spine-chilling warning to all feminist organizations. How might they all react if the widespread protests against Hanna Lalango’s brutal gang-rape and murder was held up as proof of Addis Ababa’s “rape culture” and used to justify the rape of tens of thousands of Addis Ababa’s women and girls? How loud would their cries be if the social media campaign against heightened sexual violence during Covid-19 was weaponized to justify gang-rapes in the streets of Piassa, Arat Kilo, and Cherkos? How angry might they get, if organizations like #MeTooEthiopia and Setaweet were held up as proof of Addis Ababa’s “unfriendliness” to women amid industrial-level weaponized rape in the city? 

In a moral society, one need not invoke such extreme hypotheticals to draw fellow citizens’ empathy, solidarity, and support. Alas, with each passing day, the ties that bind Ethiopian society today seem looser and less concrete, having been woven out of imperial tales and patriarchy. There is something fundamentally wrong with a society that at all levels, from its ambassadors and Attorney General to its journalists and feminists, rushes to downplay, legitimize or even tacitly support abhorrent SGBV against girls as young as 4.

What we are seeing from the pro-government camp’s misrepresentation and weaponization of Yikuno and other feminist organizations in Tigray – partially enabled by the disappointing silence of Ethiopian feminists – is an effort to invalidate the feminist struggle and silence women. It is not enough for the genocidal forces of Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea’s dictator Isaias Afewerki to inflict weaponized SGBV against Tigrayan society; their propagandists also want to tell the women and girls of Tigray that this is their natural condition, that there is nothing extraordinary about the excruciating trauma they have endured for months, that they should be quiet about their unimaginable suffering. It is, therefore, our responsibility as feminists, women, and human beings to stand behind this uncontroversial declaration: Women and Men must be protected from weaponized Sexual and Gender Based Violence without exception, equivocation, or qualification. 

It is also incumbent upon us to extend our unreserved support to the extraordinarily brave women and girls of Tigray who had the courage to challenge injustice before the war, who continued to do so while living under the daily horror of occupation, and are doing so today while living under siege. A society which can not make these affirmations—such as present-day Ethiopia—is a society which harbours nothing but disdain and disregard for women. It is Tigrayan women today who are bearing the brunt of this genocidal disdain, but it could be every other woman in Ethiopia tomorrow. 

Omna Tigray Contributor, August 2021