European Parliament Conference Speech: Women and gender violence in Ethiopia 

Good morning everyone. Thank you for inviting me to take part in this important conference on women and gender violence in Ethiopia.

I’d like to begin by outlining the human rights situation in Ethiopia, sketch in the place of women within the society and then relate a story about state violence against a particular woman, a story that is representative of many.

The country has been governed by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, since 1991.

The ruling party speaks of democracy but consistently acts in violation of democratic principles, tramples on human rights, ignores international law, and uses violence and fear to suppress the population. They are a tyrannical wolf in democratic sheep’s clothing, causing suffering and misery to millions of people throughout Ethiopia. 

The government has complete control of funds donated by donors, including the World Bank, USA, the European Commission and Britain. Aid, employment opportunities and higher education places are all distributed strictly on a partisan basis.

The judiciary is a puppet controlled by the government, as is the “investigative branch of the police”. Federal and regional security services operate with almost “total impunity”.

Opposition parties are marginalised, their leaders imprisoned or forced to live abroad. There is no freedom of assembly and association, no media freedom; virtually all press, television and radio outlets are state-owned, as is the only telecommunications company – allowing total surveillance of the Internet.

Ethiopia is the fourth most censored country in the world after Eritrea, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. 

Rape of women within Ethiopian society is endemic and attitudes towards rape are largely negative, with many people blaming the victim. Prostitution is widespread and Domestic violence commonplace, with 60% of women admitting to being subjected to some form of abuse at the hands of their partner. In many ways women are reviled, mistreated and abused. 

It is within this toxic, suffocating environment that women live, vulnerable and afraid. Those in Oromia, Amhara, Gambella and the Ogaden region, where state control is most acute, are particularly at risk.

Since 2013 I have made three trips to Dadaab Refugee camp in Kenya to meet with refugees from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and record their stories of torture and violent abuse at the hands of the Ethiopian military and the Liyu Police. I have spoken to dozens of refugees and would like to share one account with you.

It is of a young woman named Maryama:

MARYAMA is married and has two children. Like many people within the region her family are pastoralists. 

One day soldiers from the Ethiopian military came to Maryama’s home, where she was bathing her recently new-born son. In the sand outside her simple house were footprints, the soldiers asked why she was alone in the house and who made the footprints.

The soldiers went house-to-house questioning anybody they found. In one home they came across a young mother with a new born child, the soldier asked what she was doing alone and kicked the mother in the stomach. She screamed, collapsed on the ground and died. A woman neighbour went to her aid. She was caught by the throat by a soldier and also questioned about the footprints, she said she knew nothing, but was shot and killed by the soldier. 

Then two men from the village arrived. The soldiers questioned them about the Ogaden National Liberation Front, or ONLF. One of the men denied any connection to the ONLF. The soldiers tied his hands together, and threw a rope around his neck. They then pulled on the rope either side of the man until he was strangled to death.

Maryama witnessed these horrific events. She was then ordered to hold the dead man who had just been strangled upright and not allow him to fall. She did this for at least two hours while the soldiers watched her. 

When she eventually she let go of the man through tiredness the soldiers put a plastic bag over her head and tied a rope around her throat until she fainted.

When she regained consciousness she was naked and in great pain, she found it difficult to move. She was no longer in her village but in a pit that had been dug. With her there were eight other people, five of whom were dead. She cried hysterically.

She was kept in the pit for 28 days during which time soldiers came and collected breast milk from her and took it to her child. After 28 days the child was brought to her and they were both taken to prison. 

She was held captive in Jail Ogaden in Jigjiga for two years, during which time she was routinely tortured and raped. In the prison there were 1007 women, Maryama counted them. They were kept in inhumane conditions, huge numbers being crammed into single cells.

There were two main methods of torture used on Maryama and the women in the prison:

They were stripped naked and forced to crawl on their hands and knees across sharp stones. As they did this their knees would collapse and bleed, however if they stopped they were beaten with wooden sticks or the butt of a rifle

The women were stripped naked, taken to the toilets where the waste was thrown over them and at the same time they were beaten with sticks, belts and the butt of a rifle. They were not allowed to wash and were forced to sleep covered in toilet waste.

In addition to torture Maryama was repeatedly raped by groups of soldiers whilst she was unconscious. She was made unconscious by either being knocked out with the butt of a rifle or by being strangled with a rope. 

During one of my visits to Dadaab I interviewed a defected Commander from the Ethiopian military. Having heard so many accounts of rape I asked him if soldiers were trained how to rape women. To my great surprise he said yes, they were, and proceeded to relate the training process. This barbaric practice involves teenage girls being brought to an army camp from prison and tied to the ground before being raped by a training officer in front of the assembled soldiers.

Although these stories relate specifically to the Ogaden region, the same methods are being employed towards women by the ruling regime up and down the country. 

Women who are imprisoned, are routinely raped by prison guards, interrogated whilst naked and forced to admit to crimes they haven’t committed. In many cases when released they suffer a mental breakdown of one kind or another as a result of their trauma. In some instances, women become mute.

Sexual violence towards women is systematically used by the ruling regime to create a climate of fear in which women are dissuaded from standing up against the government and/or supporting opposition parties. 

The image promulgated by the EPRDF, donor countries and mainstream media of Ethiopia as a thriving democracy is a complete fallacy. It is time the truth was told and the ruling regime seen for what it truly is, a brutal dictatorship that is determined to hold on to power at any cost.

 

 12TH OCTOBER 2017

Via Skype