March 8, the International Women’s Day is approaching. Invitations for numerous upcoming events have been published in “governmental” and opposition websites. International Women’s Day is celebrated since the mid seventies (in ELF and EPLF areas) and was established as a public holiday after independence of Eritrea. On SHEMONTE MEGABIT (March 8) many Eritreans top styled with their ornaments and dressed in colourful LUWYET or bright ZURYA showcase the beauty and diversity of traditional celebrations at festivities organised by the NUEW (National Union of Eritrean Women) or the several Women’s Organisations of the opposition parties. After a brief concluding remark by a NUEW representative (or brazenly a male government official) on the participation (making up to 35%), sacrifices and achievements of Eritrean heroines in the armed struggle, expressing resolve “to foil external conspiracies” and confirming “readiness to any call by our government” the stage is clear for the key event – GUAYLA dance. On the Eritrean opposition campInternational Women’s Day is celebrated in a similar manner (though widely and mainly used to concurrently convey “organisational messages”).
What is worth to honour and celebrate? Do these celebrations dignify and render due homage to our heroines – the female TEGADELTI who were part of the very initial movement for change in the 60s, the sacrifices of the 35% of the armed Liberation Forces, the numerous brave Eritrean mothers? Do these events hold the spirit of International Women’s Day alive and growing for the young generation? Do we gain any inspiration from them? NO, absolutely not!
I asked myself why Eritrean women as a driving political force, and particularly our heroines, are apparently “invisible”… and went searching. I was struck by the obvious scarcity of literature on the issue. In search of personal history of Eritrean women with extraordinary touch the first name that came to my mind was one I heard years ago – Martha. She who was part of the hijacking attempt of an Ethiopian Airlines plane. I didn’t even know her father’s name, and I found this: few sentences in http://www.ehrea.org/HU.htm. More detailed description is published in: http://pambazuka.org/en/category/features/78157
Here is the title and some quotations:
”The Martha manifesto: An Ethiopian woman’s dream”
“Martha was the daughter of a brigadier-general who hailed from the province of Eritrea (Eritrea was then part of Ethiopia). She was a beautiful and intelligent medical student at Haile Selassie I University (now AddisAbebaUniversity) back in the 1970s. She entered college when she was only 15 years old… Martha was born in Addis Ababa and as a young girl she had a chance to study in Nigeria and to visit the US as an exchange student…The night before the hijacking attempt she wrote:
”…We, women of Ethiopia and Eritrea, are not only exploited as members of the working classes and peasants, we are also victims of gender inequality, treated as second class citizens. Therefore, our participation in this struggle must double the efforts of other oppressed groups; we must fight harder, we must be at the forefront”.
Martha has never been honoured by any Eritrean (political) organisation!
I further found some information in Harnet.org, published in March 2012, devoting half a page to the story of “some of the first Eritrean women who took active part in the revolution in the 1960s and early 1970s”, namely Nisrit Kerrar, Jumaa Omar and Almaz Woldu.
In Jeberti.com you find a photo of Alem Mesfin- the first woman martyr in the armed struggle – and an “unsuitable” poem dedicated to her.
The “government’s” Haddas Ertra with its huge capacity and accessibility to the necessary source files here and there extraordinary biographies; seldom devoted to the merit/history of the “unknown” heroes and heroines. In any case the mismatch of comprehensiveness of the documents to the disadvantage of the latter is very noticeable, such as in the series of BeAL NEZELAN BETRN with up to 52 parts; making it longer than the exciting Eri-TV movie series.
I continued searching. I looked for books and study papers. I was lucky to find some, e.g. at www.africaworldpressbooks.com (listed below).
Then it was time to look at what the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) presents and how it defines its aims. The NUEW is the only “non”-governmental organisation in Eritrea, as proclaimed by itself. In its website it states … “continues to play key role in advocating for, monitoring, and evaluating the formulation/planning and implementation of government policies and programs from a gender perspective.” (Emphasis mine). As far as “advocating for” is concerned this is admittedly true – as the apparently one sole purpose. Numerous statistical data protocols regarding mortality, reproductive health, education and female circumcision prior to 2002 are depicted. You find further details on ongoing seminars, training income generation … contact … on “page not found”. Abundant information about festivals/MEKETETAT is available on the NUEW FB.
In a 65-page special report presented to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in February 2004 the sole NGO in Eritrea states ”… The mission of NUEW is to ensure that all Eritrean women confidently stand for their rights and equally participate in the political, economic, social and cultural spheres of the country and share the benefits.” … ”Eritrean women were adequately represented (over 40%) in the ECC, a body mandated to draft the first National Constitution thereby becoming part of the National Law making process. Which National law? Which Constitution? What an irony! Did Leul Gebreab, the Chairperson of NUEW, as a special emissary of the government, not make a plea “to staunch the conspiracies of January 21” at a NUEW seminar in Germany last week?
There is no written record or platform for discussion regarding sexual harassment (translated in Tigrinya it sounds harmless and inoffensive: REBISHUWA…INDAHATETE MOK ABILUA, DELIYUW, ) during -when most female Tegadelti were at the age of 15-24- and post Ghedli era. Many former Tegadeltis could fill entire books on this subject. Life was less “romantic” than depicted in the film series TIMALI. Asia Abdelkader has still more to tell about sexual harassment/abuse under the current “government”. In how far is rape/sexual harassment prosecuted in reality in Eritrea? Read Asia`s presentation.
What is the current state of play and where are we headed? What has been achieved in the last 20 years? Have the promises been kept? What chances and shares do our sisters in Eritrea have in “equal participation in the political, economic, social and cultural spheres of the country” (beyond the “equality” in “Agelglot”) ? What is the future perspective for the women in Eritrea?
Given their specific biography the majority of the female recent arrivals in the Diaspora belong to the less educated and disadvantaged. Women being the majority of the victims of war and injustice we witness a huge number of single mothers with the double burden and responsibility of raising children in a new (and often hostile) environment and supporting family members and relatives. We are currently witnessing the horrifying and ugliest form of human trafficking in the Sinai with an increased incidence of murder, sexual abuse and rape.
Has criticism or even concern ever been voiced by the appointed 30% women in the nominal National and Regional Assemblies? Do we find any female name among the few advisers and policy makers around Isaias Afwerki? Where did the assumed mouthpiece of Eritrean women, NUEW, now celebrating the International Women’s Day in its 34th year of existence, stand in the light of the current misery? We don’t expect the Women’s Organisation to solve the problems alone. But the least we can demand from it is to identify and conduct open discussions on these serious issues from “a gender perspective” challenging the “government” (in post-Isaias Afwerki era equally!). It should have raised its voice and campaigned against the atrocities in the Sinai. The prefix “non-governmental” is a farce. Needless to say, the NUEW – just as little as other “mass organisations” – has never been more than a loyal political tool to enforce and secure the government’s policies. It degrades itself to a charity at best.
There is no record of any open dispute or disaccord between the NUEW and the “government” regarding gender specific issues so far. Imagine an open discussion in Eri-TV, Leul Gebreab challenging Isaias Afwerki regarding the rights of women and social justice! I think Isaias Afwerki would not even allow to be interviewed by an Eritrean woman – I mean he never did this in the last 20 years.
The aim of the arduous struggle for independence and why many women and men are either disabled or have lost their lives was not to inherit sacrifice of lives to the next generation. NO! It had the sole aim to put an end to it and allow every citizen to join a peaceful civilized life.
Things are taking a turn, an irreversible turn, for change. We have many educated and talented women. A number of them in the Diaspora are participating in several ways to bring about justice and the rule of law, doing away with tyranny. They are present anywhere and everywhere – in the political parties, civil societies, in websites, blogs, FB and at demonstrations. These brave women are fearless, dedicated and are acting as genuine advocators of the victimized and voiceless Eritreans. A few of the names that stand for this cause are Elsa Chyrum, Asia Abdulkadir, Meron Estifanos, Selam Kidane, Dr. Alganesh Fesseha Ghandi, Sister Azezet Kidane, Aida Kidane, Alia Gabres, Feven Solomon, Gergishu Yohannes…
And still the participation is low and limited. You don’t find a single woman at a leading position (as a chairwoman). The political organizations and civic societies are obliged to address the possible reasons and find a solution. The Eritrean woman has been betrayed once, twice…she will not go for one more disappointment. I believe, she is not ready to join any movement before she ascertains the goals are clear and is convinced that her participation in that group is not a means to an end. There is no substantial attitudinal shift in the society towards (in)equality of genders.
In order to change the current balance and ensure that women are not condemned and confined to clean the mess done by men (men as political actors and warriors on one hand and women engaging themselves as human rights activists on the other hand) political power must be shared by women. Then, and only then, can tyranny find an end and wars be avoided!
Habtom Yohannes wrote last week in his FB that it is time the leadership goes to women. I fully agree with him. There is wide recognition of their organizational talents, ability in peaceful resolution of conflicts (at least they don’t rush to take up arms!) and their communicative skills. And after all a woman president would never ever give a boring eight-hour interview. SILUTAT INA! If we (and the other side of Mereb) had a woman at the head of state, I think, many a hurdle and a mischief would have been avoided. Just an assumption!
I firmly believe that we have a huge backlog of (home) work in every aspect compared to what was already on the ground 30-40 years ago. We are a long way from achieving the goals and ideals we had, a long way from an independent country with the rule of law and social justice, equality of gender, liberty of the individual…
On March 8 of this year we still have every reason to mourn, mourn our sisters and brothers who are in Eritrean prisons, mourn the victims of human trafficking. I hope it will be a day where every sensible Eritrean woman will stop denying flatly the mischief and atrocities in Eritrea and do her bit to challenge it. The current regime is abusing the basic human rights of the whole Eritrean population regardless of gender, religion or ethnicity making the demand for CHANGE indispensable.
Thumbs up for FORTISTAs everywhere!
Happy International Women’s Day
List of books:
1. Abeba Tesfagiorgis, A Painful Season & A Stubborn Hope: The Odyssey of an Eritrean Mother. The Red Sea Press, 1992. http://www.africaworldpressbooks.com/servlet/Detail?no=786
2. Francesca Zamperetti & Giovanna Franca Dalla Costa, Sharing Trust: Women and Microcredit in Eritrea. The Red Sea Press, 2007. http://www.amazon.com/Sharing-Trust-Women-Microcredit-Eritrea/dp/1569022410
3. Tesfa G. Gebremedhin, Women, Tradition, and Development in Africa: A case study of Eritrea.Red Sea Press, 2002. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Women-Tradition-Development-Africa-Eritrean/dp/156902152X
4. Amrit Wilson, Women and the Eritrean Revolution: The Challenge Road. Red Sea Press, 1991. http://www.africaworldpressbooks.com.
5. Tanja R. Müller, The Making of Elite Women: Revolution and Nation Building in Eritrea (Afrika-Studiecentrum Series). Brill Academic Pub, 2004.
6. Fana Asefaw, Weibliche Genitalbeschneidung. U.Helmer, 2008. http://www.amazon.com/
7. Worku Zerai, A study of femal genital mutilation in Eritrea, Norwegian Church Aid, 2003. http://books.google.com/books
8. Asia Abdulkader, Staat und Gewalt im Geschlechterverhältnis in Eritrea, University of Bonn, Germany, 2006. http://www.uni-koeln.de
9. Ararat Iyob, Blankets of Sand, Poems of War and Exile, Red Sea Press, 1999.