This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
In August 2020, Genocide Watch had issued a genocide warning for Ethiopia, pointing out the government’s inaction to stop ethnically motivated violence between Oromo, Amhara, Tigrayan, and Gedeo people. The violence continued, even as more and more separatists and armed groups began to take advantage of the unrest spreading across the country. In Tigray region, leaders conducted regional elections of their own accord, ahead of the now-delayed national elections.
The ongoing armed conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia began on November 4, 2020. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the Ethiopian Defence Forces to engage with “the Tigray Regional Paramilitary Police and militia loyal to the Tigray People Liberation Front in response to multiple attacks by the Tigray Security Forces on the EDF North Command Base in Mekelle and other military camps in the Tigray Region.” On November 9, 2020, there was evidence of the mass killing of several hundreds of Amharans in the western Tigray town of Mai Kadra. In the weeks that followed, several reports emerged, pointing at thousands of civilians being killed or fleeing to Sudan. In December 2020, the UN reported that violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws unfolded in the region, and mentioned the prevalence of the deliberate targeting of civilians, extrajudicial killings and widespread looting.
The genesis of the Tigray conflict goes back to the Ethiopian Civil War in 1991. After this war, Ethiopia became a dominant-party state, ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF) – which was a coalition of ethnically-based parties. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front was a founding member, and was part of the Ethiopian Government until 2019, when it refused to merge into the Prosperity Party. In 2020, tensions between the government and the TPLF escalated. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, of Oromo descent, accused the TPLF of undermining his authority. The authorities in Tigray, meanwhile, went ahead and conducted the September 2020 elections to the Tigray Parliament – while all other elections in Ethiopia were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Abiy Ahmed’s government declared this election illegal. Tensions were exacerbated by Ahmed’s government building a good relationship with Eritrean President, Isias Afwerki, who has a poor image in Tigray. In October 2020, the Ethiopian Reconciliation Commission attempted a mediation between the federal and Tigrayan governments, but the two sides set rather tall preconditions that hampered the peace process.
Mounting tensions culminated in Abiy’s general being prevented by the Tigrayan government from taking his military post. On November 3, 2020, the Federal Parliament of Ethiopia proposed designating TPLF as a terrorist organization. The next day, the TPLF carried out the November Northern Command attacks on the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) Northern Command headquarters in Mekelle, and bases in Adigrat, Agula, Dansha, and Sero in the Tigray Region.
The Prevalence of Sexual violence
Pramila Patten, the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, noted that the sexual violence that took place during the Tigray conflict included rape in Mekelle, individuals being forced to rape their family members, sex in exchange for basic goods, and a rise in the number of demands for emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections.
Reports put together by the Europe External Program with Africa from January 2021 show that large numbers of women were sexually abused and raped, both individually and in acts of gang rape; and that large number of women had been kidnapped by the security forces without any clarity on their whereabouts and sites of detention. The girls were forced to keep quiet and were threatened not to report the rape or seek medical care. A refugee from the Tigray Conflict told Reuters that she had been raped at gunpoint, and that the rapist was dressed in an ENDF uniform and stated that a condom was unnecessary. There have also been reports from aid workers and doctors who have indicated the prevalence of rape the Amhara and EDF security forces in the towns of Rawyan, Wukro, Adigrat, and Mekelle. The deposed leader of the Tigray Region, Debretsion Gebremichael, who had been elected in September 2020 and later deposed in the conflict, indicated that mothers and daughters were being raped by “the enemies.” The Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General indicated that In May 2021, over 500 cases of gender-based violence, including rape, were reported - a number that included about 70 reported cases against girls under 18.
The Strategic Use of Sexual Violence
Sexual violence in the Tigray conflict has been carried out deliberately, as a weapon of war. The motivation for its deployment as a war tactic has centred on spreading fear among the targeted communities. The underlying motive of spreading fear is to threaten the community into compliance and to give up fighting. A second motive is to break the morale of the targeted communities. By forcing communities to resort to sex for basic commodities, the aim is to humiliate them. The deliberate targeting of mothers and daughters, and forcing family members to commit rape, all speak to the weaponization of stigma and cultural salience around notions of purity. This has also motivated some families to shave their daughters’ heads and dress them as boys in order to protect them from rape. The absence of a robust security sector system has prevented reportage and appropriate response to keep the crime in check – thus providing an enabling environment for the crime.
Al Jazeera, "‘Disturbing’ rape allegations in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict: UN." https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/22/disturbing-rape-allegations-in-ethiopias-tigray-conflict-un
United Nations, "United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Pramila Patten, urges all parties to prohibit the use of sexual violence and cease hostilities in the Tigray region of Ethiopia." https://www.un.org/sexualviolenceinconflict/press-release/united-nations-special-representative-of-the-secretary-general-on-sexual-violence-in-conflict-ms-pramila-patten-urges-all-parties-to-prohibit-the-use-of-sexual-violence-and-cease-hostilities-in-the/
BBC, "Ethiopia's Tigray crisis: 'I lost my hand when a soldier tried to rape me.’" https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-55832711
Europe External Programme with Africa, "Situation Report EEPA HORN No. 45 - 4 January 2021." https://www.eepa.be//wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Situation-Report-EEPA-Horn-No.-45-4-January-2021.pdf
Reuters, "'Choose - I kill you or rape you': abuse accusations surge in Ethiopia's war" https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-ethiopia-conflict-rape-idUSKBN29S0BG
Eritrea Hub, "Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael’s Statement, 30 January 2021." https://eritreahub.org/dr-debretsion-gebremichaels-statement-30-january-2021
The Guardian, "Ethiopia confirms reports of rape in Tigray war." https://guardian.ng/news/world/ethiopia-confirms-reports-of-rape-in-tigray-war/
BBC, "Tigray crisis: Ethiopia orders military response after army base seized." https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54805088
France 24, "Ethiopia's Tigray region defies PM Abiy with 'illegal' election." https://www.france24.com/en/20200909-ethiopia-s-tigray-region-defies-pm-abiy-with-illegal-election-1
Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General (June 17, 2021). https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/db210617.doc.htm
Documented by Kirthi Jayakumar