In Tigray, Sexual Violence Has Become a Weapon of War

The world must step in now and call the assaults what they are: a war crime.

By Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand and former administrator of the United Nations Development Program, and Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
A woman is held by an assistant at a safe house for survivors of sexual assault in Mekele, the capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, on Feb. 27.
A woman is held by an assistant at a safe house for survivors of sexual assault in Mekele, the capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, on Feb. 27. Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images

In recent weeks, women in Tigray, Ethiopia, have started coming forward with the most painful stories imaginable about how they have been sexually violated and tortured by soldiers of the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies.

It takes courage for any woman to speak about her experience of rape. In a conservative society such as Ethiopia’s, it takes special bravery for a woman to share the most intimate and agonizingly raw details about her ordeal.

Every journalist or humanitarian worker who has interviewed these survivors says that the reported cases are only a fraction of the true number. Medical staff report that the majority of the cases they are seeing are women and girls who have been subjected to horrific sexual assault. Those who speak out know that they are thereby placing themselves are at risk of reprisal.

The evidence they present speaks to a pattern of widespread and systematic sexual violence perpetrated by men in uniform. In his briefing to the United Nations Security Council on April 15, Mark Lowcock, the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, shared one story. “An internally displaced woman who recently arrived in Shire,” he said, “explained that when conflict began in her town, she fled and hid in the forest for six days with her family.” She gave birth while in hiding, but “her baby died a few days later—at the same time that her husband was also killed. When she resumed her journey, she met four Eritrean soldiers who raped her in front of the rest of her children throughout the night and into the following day.”

Lowcock was left to conclude, he continued, that “there is no doubt that sexual violence is being used in this conflict as a weapon of war, as a means to humiliate, terrorize, and traumatize an entire population today and into the next generation.”

This reality can no longer be ignored or denied. Doing so is not a matter of attributing blame for who began the hostilities in Tigray last year. It is not a matter of regrettable civilian casualties as a collateral to military operations. Rather, it is a recognition of war crimes and probably crimes against humanity being committed against women and girls.

The U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security in October 2000. It calls on all warring parties to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in situations of armed conflict. And on April 14, Pramila Patten, U.N. special representative of the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict, demanded that the U.N. act at the highest level to apply Resolution 1325 to the crimes in Tigray.

Rape is a crime. Insofar as rape and fear of rape also have a devastating impact on women’s ability to care for their children and support their families, it also contributes to hunger. A survivor of rape may be physically or emotionally unable to provide the care and emotional support that her children need. She may be unable to work in her household—if she still has one. She may feel so ashamed that she cannot continue to do what is needed to sustain a livelihood, such as going to the market. A school-age girl may stay away from school.

Fear of sexual violence has sent uncounted thousands of women and girls into hiding, too terrified to travel and unable to go to work, to the shops, to food distribution centers, or to their farms. It is not a stretch to say that children in Tigray are starving because women and girls are being raped.

The war crime of starvation is defined as the destruction, removal, or rendering useless of objects indispensable to the survival of civilians. There is overwhelming evidence of these crimes in Tigray. Soldiers have burned or looted food stores and crops, destroyed water facilities, vandalized and ransacked clinics and hospitals, and pillaged shops, schools, and factories.

Three years ago, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2417 on armed conflict and hunger. This reaffirmed that using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare may constitute a war crime.

The world knows enough to say that war crimes are happening in Tigray. We should not need to wait until we are able to conduct full and thorough investigations before we act to stop rape as a weapon of war. We should not have to count the graves of children before we act to stop starvation crimes.

Resolutions 1325 and 2417 are meaningless pieces of paper unless the world acts on their solemn commitments.

On April 22, the U.N. Security Council belatedly issued its first statement on the crisis in Tigray. It noted with concern the humanitarian situation and the reports of sexual violence, but it showed neither urgency nor determination to act on either of these two resolutions.

One should have no illusion that ending atrocities and the armed conflicts in which they occur is an easy task. The women and girls of Tigray need compassion and support immediately—and in the future—to deal with the trauma and deprivations they face. But speaking out to condemn unconscionable violations is a first step.

We believe the women and girls of Tigray who have told us of their harrowing experiences. And the world will judge the commanders in this battle on their actions to end these abuses.

Helen Clark is a former prime minister of New Zealand and former administrator of the United Nations Development Program. Twitter: @HelenClarkNZ

Rachel Kyte is the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and a former special representative of the United Nations secretary-general for Sustainable Energy for All.