Time for Action: Women March in Cities Across Tigray
In a powerful display of courage, resilience, and determination, women in Tigray came together during the first week of July 2023 to participate in a historical march for justice, accountability, and solidarity. Against the backdrop of the existential challenges the people of Tigray have faced and continue to face, this women’s march serves as a testament to the indomitable spirit and unwavering determination of the women of Tigray, who refuse to be silenced. Despite the multifaceted challenges they face, the women of Tigray have shown steadfast strength in shining a light on the atrocities and hardships they continue to experience. The demonstrations were held in the capital Mekelle as well as Adiguden (Northeastern Tigray), Adigrat (Eastern Tigray), Maichew (Southern Tigray), Axum (Central Tigray), and Shire (Northwestern Tigray). The protestors highlighted the challenges they continue to face because of the genocidal war on Tigray, among them international aid organizations’ decision to suspend aid delivery to Tigray in early May 2023. The demonstrations were organized and led by women of diverse backgrounds with different faiths, ages, and occupations, highlighting the widespread devastation wrought by the genocidal war on Tigray.
The gendered impact of the genocidal war on Tigray
Since the onset of the genocidal war on Tigray, women and girls have borne the brunt of the atrocities perpetrated by the Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces. One of the defining features of the war has been the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, which has disproportionately and devastatingly affected the region’s women and girls. The most conservative estimates suggest that tens of thousands of women and girls in Tigray have been subjected to brutal and genocidal Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) since November 2020, including rape, gang rape, kidnapping, mutilation, forced impregnation, and forced sterilization. These attacks were brutal and systematic, and targeted Tigrayan women because of their ethnic identity. Often carried out in full view of children, family members, or even community members, these attacks were designed to terrorize, subjugate, and traumatize Tigrayan society. In addition to the trauma and violence of the attacks themselves, the deadly and illegal siege imposed on Tigray by the Ethiopian government prevented survivors from accessing the medical and psycho-social help they desperately need, leaving them vulnerable to numerous life-threatening challenges including unwanted pregnancies, Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), and psychological trauma.
Moreover, women in Tigray have endured the violence of war in similar ways to their male counterparts. Women have been killed and injured in airstrikes and indiscriminate shelling throughout the war. While extrajudicial executions and massacres largely targeted men, in many instances, women were also targeted in these brutal attacks. The women who did survive these atrocious attacks often had to flee their homes with their children in tow. Accordingly, women make up a large proportion of the 2.2 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Tigray.
The current humanitarian conditions in Tigray
In November 2022, representatives of the Ethiopian and Tigrayan governments signed a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA), designed to end the fighting and improve the humanitarian conditions in Tigray. However, in the 8 months since the signing of the CoHA, there has been limited effort to implement its central tenets. Most notably, while the CoHA stipulates the need for the removal of occupying forces from all parts of Tigray, large parts of the region remain occupied by Eritrean and Amhara forces. Eritrean forces are occupying territories in the Northern and Northeastern parts of the region, while Amhara forces continue to occupy Western Tigray. Despite the CoHA, humanitarian conditions in Tigray have continued to deteriorate, most directly because of the suspension of humanitarian aid to the region in May 2023. This suspension by aid organizations such as the World Food Program and USAID was announced shortly after it was uncovered that humanitarian aid was being diverted and sold on the market. While it is vital that those responsible for such action must be held accountable, the suspension, which has now been in effect for more than two months, is leading to devastating outcomes for people in Tigray. Recent reporting has revealed that hundreds of people have already died due to starvation since the announcement of the suspension.
The July 2023 protests
It is within this dire humanitarian context that large numbers of women held demonstrations across Tigray in July 2023. The women drew attention to the catastrophic conditions they are facing amid the devastation of the war and the current humanitarian catastrophe brought on by the suspension of aid. They additionally drew attention to the implementation gaps of the CoHA, calling for its full and immediate implementation.
Among the issues highlighted by demonstrators, the most prominent one is the issue of justice for the tens of thousands of survivors of CRSV in Tigray. By raising an issue that is often not spoken about in public, the women of Tigray are challenging societal norms and pushing for progressive change and equity. The demonstrators additionally called for thorough investigations into all human rights violations and crimes committed against the people of Tigray.
Another urgent issue raised by demonstrators is the call for the resumption of aid deliveries to the region, which have been suspended for over two months now. Drawing on their lived experiences as mothers, guardians, and caretakers, the women highlighted the devastating effects the suspension of aid is having on themselves, their families, and their communities. The suspension of aid disproportionately affects women and children. Pregnant women, lactating mothers, and IDPs (the majority of whom are women) and children are especially vulnerable to severe malnutrition and starvation-related deaths.
The women of Tigray also called for the full implementation of the November 2022 CoHA. The protestors noted that many elements of the CoHA have yet to be implemented and demanded the urgent and full implementation of this agreement. This requires the immediate removal of all occupying forces from all parts of Tigray and the restoration of the pre-war boundaries between Tigray and neighboring regions, which would allow the over 2 million IDPs in Tigray to return to their homes.
How you can help
Women have long played a vital role in social mobilizations and resistance movements in Tigray. While it has often gone unrecognized, the women of Tigray are torchbearers of change and advocates for political, social, and economic equality and justice. The July 2023 demonstrations illustrate this spirit of courage, determination, and strength. By coming together to call for the resumption of humanitarian aid, demand the full implementation of the CoHA, and amplify calls for accountability, the women of Tigray are once again showing their unwavering commitment to principles of justice and equality.
We must stand behind and follow the lead of the women in Tigray, who are articulating their challenges and demanding swift action. To support these efforts, call on international agencies such as WFP and USAID to resume supplying lifesaving aid to Tigray. Additionally, call on your elected officials to hold all parties accountable to the terms of the CoHA and to support justice and accountability mechanisms. Finally, you can amplify the messages of the women of Tigray on social media using #Justice4TigrayWomen. It is our collective responsibility to support their cause and ensure that the women of Tigray receive the justice and support they deserve.
Omna Tigray Contributor, July 2023