Helen Clark

Helen Clark

Prime Minister of New Zealand 1999–2008
Administrator of the UNDP 2009-2017

In Tigray, Sexual Violence has Become a Weapon of War



Published: Foreign Policy, 27 April 2021


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.