Eritrean Refugee Women Face Sexual Violence in Tigray

Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray is in the midst of ongoing conflict that has displaced more than 1.7 million people and killed thousands. The situation is particularly dire for the more than 96,000 Eritreans in the region who fled Eritrea over several decades. All sides of the conflict have perpetrated attacks against Eritrean refugees in Tigray—even targeting them within refugee camps. Eritrean armed forces see Eritrean refugees as traitors to their country of origin, while some Tigrayan forces view them as an opposition to their cause.

Eritrean refugee women are especially at risk of violence. Rates of gender-based violence (GBV), including rape and sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA), are high among Eritrean women in Tigray. Armed men from all of the warring factions have assaulted, raped, and committed other abuses against women in Tigray to dehumanize them, including against Eritrean women refugees. However, reporting of GBV perpetrated against Eritrean women in Tigray is limited.  The experiences of Eritrean refugee women survivors must be understood to inform both GBV programming and strategic humanitarian action decisions in the region.

The needs and risks of Eritrean refugee women in Tigray are manifold. Extreme food insecurity and lack of access to resources and cash is leading to sexual exploitation and abuse of women in Tigray generally. Female-headed-households are at a higher risk for GBV and SEA because they have limited access to livelihoods and financial resources. In this context, the Ethiopian government’s humanitarian blockade on the region doubly harms Eritrean women in Tigray. The blockade denies survivors access to GBV services and keeps women in circumstances that intensify and prolong their risks. Further, services to respond to GBV have become virtually non-existent. Healthcare facilities in Tigray have undergone major damage amid the conflict. In 2021, only 10 percent of health clinics were functioning, 20 percent were occupied by armed soldiers, and 70 percent had been looted. Even when hospitals and health clinics were functioning, lack of medicine and understaffing kept survivors from getting adequate services. Women in Tigray have had few options for care under these circumstances. Eritrean refugee women have even fewer options because they are exposed to further risk if they try to access services at healthcare facilities where any armed forces are present.

Regardless, there are steps humanitarian workers and organizations can take to ensure the experiences of Eritrean women refugees are better understood and that their needs are met.

First, humanitarian actors who do have access to Tigray must purposefully seek out Eritrean refugees and conduct needs assessments. They must particularly engage with Eritrean women refugee GBV and SEA survivors directly and gain their trust. Based on these assessments, humanitarian organizations should develop GBV prevention, mitigation, and response programming that meet the specific needs and address the unique circumstances of Eritrean refugee women.

Second, humanitarian workers should establish and strengthen women-and-girls-friendly spaces and one-stop centers, prioritize psychosocial support, and increase dignity kit distributions for women and girls.

Third, international organizations and donors should identify local organizations and prioritize their partnerships to build sustained, local GBV response capacities so that Eritrean women who remain in Tigray are able to consistently access services.

Finally, humanitarian organizations should relocate their health services away from armed soldiers and occupied facilities when possible to ensure that all women, including Eritrean women refugees, are not exposed to further risk. They should also prioritize survivor-centered sexual, reproductive, and mental health services.

Eritrean women fled human rights abuses in their home country and are now caught in the crossfire of conflict in Tigray. Their voices must be heard, their experiences taken seriously, and their needs met—they must not be overlooked.

You can find reports from Refugees International on the situation in Tigray here, GBV amid the conflict here, and more information here.

Julia Holladay was an intern at Refugees International. 

PHOTO CAPTION: Women stand next to a window at Wukro General Hospital in the city of Wukro, north of Mekele, on February 28, 2021. (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images)