Saturday, 7 March 2015

The paradox of celebrating March 8 for Eritrean Women

What is there for Eritrean women to celebrate March 8, the international Women’s day? Every year women in the world and Eritrean women celebrate March 8. This day is universally celebrated to commemorate women’s struggle for justice and their achievements towards women’s rights. As the results of their struggles for justice and demands for their rights, much progress has been made to in terms women rights and gender equality. Overall, the situation of women in the world has so much improved. But the situation for Eritrean women is quite the opposite. The Eritrean women are the primary victims of the Eritrean government’s repressive and oppressive rule.  The current situation is disastrous and unbearable for the Eritrean women. Eritrean women have been deprived of all their rights. They have been reduced to slaves.
Below is a brief outline of the problems women face in Eritrea.

National slavery (National service):
As it is the case with all Eritrean nationals, it is obligatory for women to serve in the national service. Under this scheme women have been subjected to countless violations and suffering.

Women as children producing machines:
Eritrean women have been denied their rights for love, care and emotional support of their children. Women are treated by the regime as children producing, caring and nurturing machines for the slavery scheme of the regime. To understand the situation of the Eritrean women, we can draw an analogy between chickens and the Eritrean women. When chickens produce eggs, people wait for the eggs to be laid and grab and collect them. The chickens are there to produce eggs for humans. The same is happening with the Eritrean women. The women produce rear, take care of, and nurture the children and the government grabs and collect them like any objects. Even chickens are better treated because in order to produce for them, humans feed them, shelter them, protect them and medicate them. In the case of Eritrean women, the women have to provide for themselves and their family because the bread winner and the productive members of the family have been locked up in the national slavery scheme or they are languishing in secret prisons or they have been killed or disabled by the Eritrean regime. The government’s cadres and media boast that the Eritrean women, who lost five to six sons and daughters in wars, celebrated their deaths with jubilation. How could that be? This false claim is maintained by the regime because women are viewed as emotionless, children producing machines. In the Eritrean case, a barren womb is better than a fertile womb.

Women as sex slaves:
They are used as sex objects by the military officers and work as house maids or women slaves that provide services to the officers such as preparing and serving food, alcohol and coffee to the military officers; washing officers’ clothes; and bed dressing. In several instances many women are being assigned to serve one officer with continuous replacement of old servants (concubines) with new round and young women recruits. The selection of beautiful recruits who are required to provide domestic services and sex for the military officers starts during the military training and subsequently continues down the command chain up to the lowest command.

Furthermore, as the result of the national slavery scheme and the government’s view of women as sex objects only worth to satisfy the sexual lust of its army, women’s vulnerability to rape and sexual exploitation has increased. Those army officers who rape women are rewarded rather than punished.
A typical example is Wedi Ande, the commander of 6th brigade prison in Sawa. Wedi Ande raped a widow of a fighter who died in the battlefield. The widow was involved petty trade between Forto Sawa and Asmara and attracted the evil eyes of Wedi Ande. To satisfy sexual lust he arrested her from Forto Sawa and drove her to his command office and raped. It happened that this woman has relatives who are high ranking military officers. Her relatives took the matter to the president and the president passed his sever verdict on Wedi Ande. The verdict was that Wedi Ande was moved from Sawa to Asmara (Mai-Nefhi). Actually he was rewarded promoted for the crime he committed. By taking such an action, the president is giving clear messages to his army officers:  you are free to rape and enslave Eritrean women. Thus such is the fate of Eritrean women; they are subjected to different abuses and sexual harassment by different officers both in the training/concentration camps, prisons and the army. Refusal to meeting the demands of the officers usually results in torture, harassment and reassigning to places or conditions which are extremely hostile to live and work.
Eritrean women go to jail and concentration camps even with their children on allegation of attempting to escape from the country or for failures of their husbands, sons/daughters to report to their units or on allegations of escaping of husbands, sons/daughters from the country- they work on forced labour program or otherwise pay 10,000 – 50,000 Nakfa (USD 1 = 60 Nakfa in the black market and 15 Nakfa in the Banks).

Lost opportunities for marriage and establishing families:
In most of the Eritrean ethnic groups, recruitment in the military and other related activities for women is culturally and traditionally not accepted. By recruiting the women in the national service disregarding our cultures and traditions, their chances of getting married and establishing families have diminished or lost. Eritrean women waste their golden age being recruited in the endless national slavery scheme which results to loss of their fertile age thus denying them the God given rights to establish families.

Victims of unwanted and unplanned pregnancy and births:
A Considerable number of women resort to and undesired and harmful copying strategies to escape national slavery and the associated tortures and suffering. They produce children for the mere purpose of being released from the national slavery scheme. But this in turn comes with grave negative economic and social consequence for the women and the societies as a whole. It comes with responsibilities of providing for and nurturing of the children. The burden fall solely on women. Many also get pregnant and give birth as the result of rape and sexual exploitation.

Early marriage to avoid being recruited in the national slavery scheme:
Many families resort to marrying their daughters at early age to avoid recruitments in the national slavery scheme. These girls take family responsibility in the situation where their husbands are absent being locked up in the national slavery scheme. Thus they carry unbearable burden to provide for their families.

Victims of HIV/AIDS, SST and metal problems:
As consequences of the above mentioned problems many women have become the victims of HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases and mental problems. Usually the stress and anxiety Eritrean women are suffering ignored or overlooked.

Loss of livelihoods opportunities:
Wasting their golden and most productive ages in the endless national slavery scheme, Eritrea women have been denied from livelihoods opportunities and education. At the end, when they become of no value to the national slavery scheme, they are released and abandoned. But these have no any profession, skills or work experience. The militarization of the education system has closed the door for education. Those who complete their secondary level education or above just count years without access to quality education. Others drop out not to go to Sawa military training camp where the final year of schooling for secondary school is provided.

Slavery in exile:
Eritrean women have been subjected to tortures, detentions, rape and killings in the hands of the Eritrean security forces. Sadly their suffering death not end there. They become the target of rape; sexual abuse and exploitation; hostage takings, detention and kidnapping at the hands of Sudanese security forces, Rashaida, Bedouin, criminal groups and human traffickers.  Those who migrate to the Arab countries for work are subjected to multiple suffering and abuse at the hands of their Arab masters. Eritrean housemaid in the Arab countries are being forced to change their religion; take Muslim names, abandon their culture and wear like the Arabs.

The impacts of such violations on women are huge:
The women are suffering from extremely huge socio-economic difficulties that are unbearable. Eritrean women take the responsibilities of nurturing and caring of family members in addition to the heavy and time consuming work of collecting fire wood, water and provision of other basic necessities and securing and providing food for the family. Below are some of the socio economic problems women are facing:

  1. The poverty that is prevalent in the country due to the lack of income mainly due to the absence of the productive section of the population has caused women/mothers to shoulder the multiple responsibilities of ensuring the security, economic needs and social needs of family. In this case they play multiple roles as mothers and breadwinners, engaging in activities such as getting employed as daily labourers, collecting firewood, engaging in petty trade either in their towns/villages including their surrounding or even going  as far as Tesseney and Assab. However, most of the time their efforts, time and resources have been wasted/lost being exploited by the government officials as they confiscate their goods. In many instances demand from the women sex and money if they are to win their cooperation in their trade activities. The government also exploits the prevalent poverty to its advantage. The government sends some women to work in the Arab countries at cheap labour prices with big portion of their income going to the government coffers.

  1. After exhausting all the possibilities many women resort to begging activities with its social humiliating and degrading impacts on them. Some women trek hundreds of kilometers from one village to another begging while at the same time take care of, and nurture their families. Yet they suffer imprisonment and torture at the hands of the government security agencies for being beggars.

  1. Further they are forced by the government to participate in what are called the ‘development campaigns’ such soil and water conservation activities, they and their children are made to work in the fields of the army which are grabbed by the military/government from the people; they are forced to participate numerous meetings of the government, PDFJ, National union of Eritrean women (NUEW) and National Union of  Eritrean youth (NUEYS) and Students with obligatory financial monthly subscription to these organizations. These meetings and financial obligations that are paid to these institutions compete for time and resources with other activities and family needs. They are also required to contribute money required for the celebration of March 8 and the so called ‘Independence Day’.
The consequences of all these factors are that women suffer not only from poverty but from poor health, stress and anxiety resulting from the frustrations, physical and sexual abuse by the military/security forces, from bleak future and poverty with huge psychological impacts. Apart from being vulnerable and infected by HIV/AIDS as direct result of the sexual abuse and exploitations, they also suffer as malnourished pregnant and lactating mothers, which affect their health and lives. The other social impact is disintegration of families as the result of long separation as well as the result of poverty. The separation also has other social and health negative consequences as some men and women practice sex outside their marriage which becomes the cause for mistrust and separation as well as a means of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases contraction and spread in the societies with far reaching social consequences such as orphanage, change of social customs, values, traditions and institutions as well as social disorder.

Thus, if March 8, is the symbol of hope and freedom for the women of the world, what has it brought to Eritrean women? For Eritrean women is it worth celebrating March 8?

                                                                                                             Mussie Hadgu 

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