Violence Against Women In Tigray, Ethiopia
Around The World,  Violence Against Women and Girls

The Continuum Of Violence: Violence Against Women In Tigray, Ethiopia

Occurring between November 2020 to November 2022, Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict has been characterized as one of the world’s deadliest conflicts, and by particularly harrowing levels of gender-based violence (GBV). The various factions involved in the conflict, encompassing the Ethiopian National Defense Force, the Eritrean Defense Force, the Tigrayan Forces, Tigrayan Militias, the Amhara Regional Special Force, and the Fano militia, were implicated in said violence. Eritrean women, originally seeking refuge in Tigray, are among the hardest hit by the violence, fleeing their own country’s turmoil. 



The dire situation in Tigray mirrors the theories of prominent feminist thinkers regarding sexual and gender-based violence during times of conflict, illustrating its cyclical and recurring nature rather than a linear progression. It epitomizes a continuum, as Kelly (1987) argued. 


This article, stemming from research for a Human Rights and Multi-Level Governance degree at the University of Padua, has two main goals. Firstly, it aims to offer a current overview of the situation in Tigray, emphasizing the severe human rights abuses against women. Secondly, it delves into the theory of a ‘continuum of violence’ to underscore its relevance in crafting policies that effectively address the multifaceted nature of violence experienced by women. 


The Situation for Women in Tigray in 2024 

The Tigray conflict, which erupted in November 2020, triggered a dire humanitarian crisis, pitting the Ethiopian federal government and Eritrean forces against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Stemming from TPLF attacks on the Ethiopian National Defense Force’s Northern Command headquarters, the conflict swiftly escalated into a full-fledged civil war. 


Disturbing reports indicate that Tigrayan women and girls have been systematically subjected to widespread sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) during the conflict, including heinous acts such as gang rape and sexual mutilation. Despite the conflict ostensibly concluding in November 2022, recent observations by Refugees International Senior Fellow, Sarah Miller, indicate that the civilian populace persists in enduring a profound humanitarian crisis, marked by restricted access to critical aid and services vital for sustenance and rehabilitation. This crisis notably impacts women, who face formidable challenges in navigating the psychological, emotional, physical, and systemic repercussions of pervasive violence. 


Throughout the two-year conflict, experts estimate that gender-based violence (GBV) afflicted at least 40% to 50% of women and girls in the Tigray, Amhara, Afar, and Oromia regions of Ethiopia. Shockingly, approximately 80% of reported cases involved rape, with over 90% of victims being young girls under 16. 


Eritrean Women in Tigray – ‘Double Victims’ 

Many women in the region, fleeing violence in Eritrea, face a secondary wave of violence. Eritrean refugees, among the most vulnerable groups, endure atrocities in northern Ethiopia. With around 149,000 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, this situation violates international human rights frameworks and exemplifies the ‘continuum of violence’ highlighted by feminist scholars. 


Since the conflict began, both Eritrean forces and Tigrayans have targeted Eritrean refugees. Eritrean forces see them as deserters, while Tigrayans may retaliate for atrocities committed by Eritrean forces. Women, especially, suffer as triple victims due to their ethnicity, gender, and refugee status. 


What is a ‘The Continuum of Violence’? 

Feminist writer Liz Kelly (1987) introduced the concept of a ‘continuum’ in her work ‘The Continuum of Sexual Violence’ to describe male violence against women. Kelly argued that traditional legal frameworks inadequately explained women’s experiences of harm and proposed viewing violence against women (VAW) as a continuum, acknowledging its various forms and impacts, including economic, social, psychological, and physical consequences (Kelly, 1987; Kelly, 1988). 


In ‘The Continuum of Violence: A Gender Perspective on War and Peace,’ Cockburn (2004) further developed this idea, focusing on sexual violence during conflict. Cockburn outlined three stages: ‘Uneasy Peace: Before the Onset of Violence,’ ‘War and Political Terror,’ and the ‘Process of Peace.’ She argued that VAW transcends these stages, manifesting in different ways throughout. Rejecting the sharp distinction between peace and war, Cockburn asserted that true peace for women is elusive, as violence permeates social, economic, and political contexts (Cockburn, 2004:32). This perspective offers a nuanced understanding of conflict beyond traditional notions of physical violence, recognizing its multifaceted nature and impact on women. 



What can we learn from it? 

This precise inquiry served as the cornerstone of my master’s thesis research. The study employed semi-structured interviews with five professionals in the field, representing organizations such as The Network of Eritrean Women and United Nations Representatives. The responses garnered from these interviews were categorized into four analytical trends, delineating the potential benefits of the Continuum of Violence theory in devising practical policy solutions. These trends encompassed Long-Term Strategies, Policies Addressing Social, Psychological, and Economic Ramifications of Violence, the Role of Grassroots Initiatives, and the Involvement of the International Community. 


1. Long-Term Strategies: 

In discussions concerning Long-Term Strategies, all five participants emphasized the value of conceptualizing violence beyond its physical manifestations. This expanded perspective, as posited by the theory, facilitates the development of enduring strategies, notably in the realm of educational initiatives aimed at challenging misogynistic ideologies and societal structures underpinning Violence Against Women (VAW). These educational programs were deemed crucial not only for dispelling misogynistic beliefs among men and boys but also for empowering women and girls through an understanding of their rights. 



2. Policies Addressing Social, Psychological, and Economic Ramifications of Violence: 

Building upon the aforementioned point, all interviewees underscored the imperative of the theory’s comprehensive understanding of violence, enabling the formulation of policies that extend beyond the mere mitigation of physical harm. Such policies encompass initiatives to ensure safe avenues for women to engage in daily familial and economic pursuits, such as water collection and commuting to work, alongside the provision of structured psychological support to disrupt the cycle of intergenerational trauma resulting from violence. 


3. The Role of Grassroots Initiatives: 

Additionally, all participants highlighted that a broader conceptualization of violence along the continuum would foster opportunities for grassroots responses, transcending the confines of a realist, state-centric approach. This approach may entail granting greater autonomy to grassroots organizations in Ethiopia, which enjoy a higher level of trust from the government and are not met with the same skepticism as international or ‘Western’ entities. 



4. International Community 

Building finally on the above, the participants outlined the necessity for a strong and committed international community to financially support the grassroots organizations in implementing the necessary culturally and regionally sensitive policies. Only with this careful coordination can the international community still provide economic support to capable in-country organizations, can the challenge of a lack of political will be overcome, and can women be afforded truly responsive resolutions to violence. 




Hence, this succinct and targeted examination of the continuum of violence theory within the context of the Tigray conflict underscores the pressing imperative for policymakers to adopt a more expansive conceptualization of violence. Only in doing so, can we truly tackle the multifaceted nature of VAW during, and beyond, conflict situations. 


Cover image attribution: , made available by Ficker via Creative Common Licence. 


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