The still journey
of Eritrean women

Every year thousands of Eritreans flee their country where military service is mandatory and of indefinite duration for women too. Arbitrary detention is commonplace, as are restrictions of freedom of expression, association and religion. Even the recent 2018 peace treaty with Ethiopia did not result in any change to the political and social structure of Eritrea.
According to the 2017 World Report by Human Rights Watch, by the end of 2015, there were 474,296 Eritrean refugees worldwide.

The migration journey, particularly the women’s journey, usually lasts for several years and often gets fragmented in different African countries. Women then start living in a limbo-like situation that makes them frequent victims of persecution.
The migration journey of Eritrean women is, very often, a still journey and this project has been documenting the condition social and human of this migration which dispers in Africa.

An article published in December 2017 by UNHCR claims that “in 2017, women represented only 12.6% of sea arrivals in Europe”, since women have less chance to emigrate than their male counterpart does. Nevertheless, after leaving their country, they frequently fail to complete their journey to Europe.
Eritrean women primarily stop in Ethiopia or Egypt, places where they are allowed to stay long term welcomed as refugees, but always in a social condition where they facing many difficulties, since in both countries a great number of human rights violations are committed against women.

The project started in 2017 and has been documenting this issue in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Egypt.

Objects that belonged to Elena (2009-2016). Addis Ababa - Ethiopia. November 6, 2017.
Elena died while crossing the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. She had a congenital liver disease and her health condition did not allow her to continue the journey. She has been buried in Erob, Eritrea. Her mother treasures a few objects that belonged to her daughter.
In Asmara there is a modern style, dating back to the era of Italian colonialism, is today characterized by the decadent aspect of poverty. Here the streets are clean and the Italian architecture gives the city a European footprint. Police are nowhere in sight and everything seems in strong contrast with the stories of migrants fleeing this country.
The Human Rights Council denounces detention, enforced disappearance, torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in Eritrean etention centres, military and civilian, official and unofficial (The Human Rights Council “Detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea”. June 8, 2016). This however is kept hidden and not seen, so much that Asmara appears as a safe city.
Asmara - Eritrea. March 22, 2019.
Outside the central streets, Asmara presents the poverty in which the inhabitants of today live.
Yohanna (22). Addis Ababa - Ethiopia. October 31, 2017.
Yohanna fled Asmara at the age of 19 to avoid a prison sentence, because her father had deserted the military service and fled the country.
At the Eritrean/Ethiopian border, more precisely in Shambuko, Yohanna was wounded by a gunshot. She lost consciousness and woke up in a hospital where she discovered that one of her kidneys had been removed. She was not given any reason for her kidney’s removal and has no medical records, nor any documents regarding the surgery.
According to Ahram Online, Egypt’s oldest news rganization, despite the peace signed in Jeddah in September 2018 between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the borders are again dangerous and closed.

According to Ahram Online, Egypt’s oldest news organization, despite the peace signed in Jeddah in September 2018 between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the borders are again dangerous and closed.

Ghindaue - Eritrea. March 23, 2019.
Muslim village on the road that connects Asmara to Massawa. Muslim women form groups among themselves as a form of protection from possible attacks. In Eritrea there are no officially designated state religions, but the Government has traditionally maintained close ties with the Orthodox Church. 51.6% of the Eritrean population adheres to Islam, while 45.2% follow Christianity; the remaining 3.2% practice other religions. Muslims are often victims of persecutions, according to US Department of State, Report on International Religious Freedom, 17 November 2010.

Susanna (35). Asmara - Eritrea. March 22, 2019.
Susanna had a daughter from an Italian man, but he hasn’t maintained relations with them. Susanna would like to reach Italy with her daughter and try to make a new life.

In July 2018 there was a declaration of peace that ended the state of war between Eritrea and Ethiopia for the claim of the qualification of the borders. Peace was signed by Abiy Ahmed Ali and Isaiah Afewerki in September in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia with the mediation of the host country, the UN and the United Arab Emirates.
Ethiopian Abiy Ahmed Ali is considered a reformist politician and it was he who promoted reconciliation with Eritrea, agreeing with Isaias Afewerki to re-open their respective embassies and restart trade. The direct air route and telephone lines have been restored between the two countries. In October 2019 Abiy Ahmed Ali won the Nobel Peace Prize whose motivation highlights his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative in resolving the conflict with neighboring Eritrea.
This is, however, a peace that Eritreans call “external peace” because it has changed nothing and Eritreans continue to live in a country where their human rights are brutally violated.

Railway network Asmara/Massawa - Eritrea. March 23, 2019.

Keren - Eritrea. March 25, 2019.
After the peace agreement, the import of goods from Ethiopia began and so-called “peace markets” were born. Women are in charge of purchasing goods and some of them go directly to the points of sale of imported products to obtain lower prices.

Following the peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia, thanks to the resources of the “Trust Fund” for Africa, the European Commission has allocated 20 million euros for the construction of a road that connects the Eritrean ports to the Ethiopian border. The goal of peace is to increase the productivity of the two nations and therefore the networks of connections to the ports of Massawa and Assab must be developed.
Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans (FHRE) denounces this investment by accusing Europe of being an accomplice Afewerki’s dictatorial government, because National Service will be involved in this project.

With the peace the boundaries between the two countries were opened, but after only a month these were closed for the Eritreans, while they remained open for the Ethiopians who could transport their goods to Eritrea.
Since May 2019 the borders are closed by both sides.

Humera Border - Ethiopia. April 2, 2019.
The Tekeze river joins Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan. This river is crossed by the Ethiopian and Eritrean with the help of smugglers, both for smuggling goods and for people who to emigrate.

Ethiopia is the first stop on the migration journey of Eritrean women. Here he stopped to collect money and then continue to Egypt, until 2019 also to Libya. The UNHCR report “The integrated response plan for refugees from Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia (January 2019 - December 2020) declares that there are 860,000 refugees in Ethiopia including 150,000 Eritreans.

Gofa neighbourhood - Addis Ababa - Ethiopia. October 30, 2017.
This is the room where T., who is now detained in Libya, used to live in. Rooms like this one can be found inside shacks, rented monthly for up to 2300 Birr – the equivalent of approximately 80 dollars. The length of stay in these hovels is usually short. Here, is where contact is made with the smugglers to organize the departure for Sudan or Libya.

Addis Ababa - Ethiopia. November 6, 2017.
In Addis Ababa, Eritreans live in two different types of dwellings, according to whether they are stationary or whether they decided to stay for a short time and later continue towards the West. This house is of an Erirtean stationary refugee family.

Ethiopian Orthodox Church - Addis Ababa - Ethiopia. November 1, 2017. An Eritrean woman is bathing with holy water; this is a practice that is traditionally adopted, but also because refugees do not have access to public care.
For many centuries, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been united with the Coptic Orthodox Church and therefore, subject to the Patriarchate of Alexandria. As reported by the Department of Global Medical in 2015, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church attributes universal healing powers to the use of holy water, even for illnesses as serious as HIV.

Semar (34) - Addis Ababa - Ethiopia. October 26, 2017.
Semar is having a subcutaneous hormonal contraceptive implant removed. She applied the contraceptive before beginning her journey towards Libya. Once she reached Sudan, however, Semar was stopped and sent back to Addis Ababa by police. Women who are about to face this journey use subcutaneous contraceptives in order to cope with the consequences of rape that can occur on their route. Legal trade and black market of these contraceptives co-exist, as traffickers often organize sessions for the application of these implants, or even supply hormonal injections to women during their journey. The National Osteoporosis Foundation denounces that, over time, these drugs (medroxyprogesterone acetate) can cause serious side effects such as premature osteoporosis.

Refugee Camp Shimelba – Rthiopia. March 31, 2019.
The use of mobile phones by migrants plays a double role: a technical-one, for the necessity to coordinate during their journey, and a relational-one, for the need to keep in touch with their loved ones (“Migrants with mobiles. Phones are now indispensable for refugees”, The Economist, February 11th, 2017).

Rita (40) and her son (13). Addis Ababa - Ethiopia. November 04, 2017.
Rita is looking at her 4-year-old daughter’s burial site photo on her phone. Her daughter had a congenital disease and the extreme conditions of the journey did not allow her to survive it. As she is talking about it, she looks at her daughter’s burial site on her phone and says, "At least, I wish I could live near her grave, but I can’t". On December 10, 2018 was approved the UN Global Compact, a document signed by several states, and promoted by the United Nations, that identifies migration policies and that, for the first time, discussed the safety of minors during their migration journeys.

Addis Ababa - Ethiopia. November 6, 2017.
A two-years-old child and he is the soon of an Eritrean refugee family.

Egypt is an important stage in the journey of Eritrean women, because they stop here hopening to continue west. Until 2013, a migratory route from Egypt was that of Sinai to reach Israel which was then blocked with the construction of the wall wanted above all by the now Prime Minister Netanyahu. from 2013 to 2016, those arrives in Egypt attempted the route to Italy from Alexandria which was very dangerous (it lasted about eight days), but cheaper than Lybia.

Eritrean women in Egypt gain protection as refugees, but suffer many gender-based violations. According to a UN study from 2013, 99.3% of Egyptian women have experienced at least one form of harassment, and 82.6% say that they do not feel safe in the streets. Michael Raouf, a lawyer with the Al Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, said that the current law on rape in Egypt dates back to 1937 and does not comprise ‘the penetration with fingers or objects and of anal or oral cavities’ (from an article by Eleonora Vio published on Repubblica, June 14, 2014).
The former President, Judge Adly Mansour, issued the decree-law n.50/2014, which amended Article 306(b), introducing the crime of sexual harassment for the first time in the history of Egyptian legislation. Although, sex crimes still remain largely unpunished, and the persistent impunity of offenders is a direct result of the failure to initiate a thorough investigation. Consequently, various feminist and human rights groups and organizations have called for the development, and implementation, of a comprehensive national strategy to eradicate sexual violence against women (Nazra for feminist studies, 2014).

Tega (49) and Letensie (38). Cairo - Egypt. February 6, 2017.
Many women in the Eritrean community bonded with one-another. They spend most of their time inside each other’s homes, since they are too afraid of going out in Cairo’s streets. The woman above is a victim of sexual violence perpetrated by a taxi driver in Cairo.

Cairo - Egypt. July 27, 2018.

Cairo - Egypt. July 26, 2018.

In Cairo women go over the roof of a hotel where there is a swimming pool to learn to swim or at least to have confidence in the water before leaving for Libya, but since 2019 this route has also been closeed.
In this still journey, women get stuck in the water of a swimming pool as in a labyrinth where there is no way out.

Winta (22). Cairo - Egypt. July 30, 2018.
Winta is an Eritrean woman traveling alone with her 4-year-old child and she told me, "I not only can’t swim, I have never even seen the sea".