A recent study examining medical records has uncovered a disturbing reality in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Scores of women and girls were subjected to sexual assault, often by multiple men suspected to be combatants, following a peace agreement that was reached last year. The youngest victim identified in the study was just 8 years old.
The Tigray conflict, which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, left an indeterminate number of women and girls with the trauma of sexual assault. The study, which analyzed records from November 2020 through June, found that at least 128 sexual assaults occurred after the signing of the peace agreement. The majority of health facilities in the region had been destroyed or looted during the conflict, leaving many victims without access to healthcare for months. Consequently, some have contracted HIV, while others are raising children born from these horrific acts. Many victims also endure the physical and psychological consequences of such assaults, such as incontinence, chronic pain, and the social stigma attached to these horrific crimes.
The study was conducted by Physicians for Human Rights and the Organization for Justice and Accountability in the Horn of Africa. A commentary in The Lancet medical journal accompanied the findings. More than 300 medical records from Tigray health centers focused on supporting survivors of sexual violence were analyzed. However, the authors caution that this study provides only a limited glimpse into the true extent of the atrocities. They express concern that the chance for justice may slip away if independent accountability efforts led by the United Nations and others are halted.
Instead of quoting individuals, the study presents a comprehensive overview of the findings. It reveals that 76% of the 304 cases reviewed involved multiple perpetrators, often three or more. Shockingly, one victim was assaulted by 19 men. Furthermore, in 94% of the cases, no condoms were used during the assaults. The perpetrators frequently employed weapons such as guns, sticks, or knives. Some victims were even abducted and subjected to repeated assaults, one of whom was held captive for six months.
According to the study, the majority of the women and girls testified that their attackers appeared to be part of a military group, often consisting of soldiers from neighboring Eritrea. These soldiers fought alongside Ethiopian forces against the Tigray fighters and were believed to be present in parts of western and northern Tigray. The report suggests that the sexual assaults were not isolated incidents but rather a deliberate and systematic use of rape as a weapon of war.
The silence from the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea on these allegations is concerning. Despite numerous requests for comment, they have not provided any official statements. This lack of response underscores the urgent need for accountability and justice for the victims.
However, there is growing worry that independent efforts to investigate and address the conflict’s impact are being hindered or suppressed. The Ethiopian government seeks to rebuild relationships with key partners, such as the United States and the European Union, as it moves forward after the conflict. Nevertheless, it has shown resistance to external efforts aimed at facilitating justice and accountability. Both an African Union human rights inquiry and calls for a United Nations inquiry have faced opposition from Ethiopian authorities.
The study also highlights the enduring effects of the conflict and the barriers to obtaining justice for survivors of sexual violence in Tigray. The region was under a blockade, isolating its population of over 5 million. Internet and phone connectivity were severed, impeding human rights researchers and journalists from accessing information. The absence of an independent inquiry means that the true scale of the civilian toll may remain hidden as Ethiopia’s government seeks to move on.
As international criminal law expert Martin Witteveen points out, accountability for these crimes cannot solely rely on diplomatic and political channels. Ethiopia, given its own forces’ involvement in the majority of these crimes, cannot ensure impartial justice. The study reveals that survivors continue to come forward, but countless others may never receive recognition or support.
1. What is the Tigray conflict?
The Tigray conflict refers to the violent conflict that erupted in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region in November 2020. The conflict involved Ethiopian government forces, supported by soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, and Tigray regional forces.
2. What were the findings of the study?
The study, analyzing medical records from November 2020 to June, revealed that scores of women and girls in Tigray were sexually assaulted after the peace agreement. At least 128 sexual assaults occurred, with a majority of the victims experiencing multiple assaults by different perpetrators.
3. Who conducted the study?
The study was carried out by Physicians for Human Rights and the Organization for Justice and Accountability in the Horn of Africa.
4. What are the long-term effects on the survivors?
Many survivors of sexual assault in Tigray face long-term physical and psychological consequences. These include living with HIV, raising children born from the assaults, incontinence, chronic pain, and the social stigma attached to the attacks.
5. Are there any efforts to ensure justice for the victims?
There are concerns that independent accountability efforts led by the United Nations and others may be impeded or halted. The Ethiopian government has criticized external efforts to promote justice and accountability. An African Union human rights inquiry has been terminated, and there is resistance to a United Nations inquiry.