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Women’s bodies as battlefields

The systematic targeting of women’s bodies during wars has come to light as a strategy used worldwide. According to Cristina Lamb (2021), women are the objects of specific, particularly sexual, forms of violence, constituting what has been defined as “gender-based violence”. Clearly men are also victims of violence, but it is the gendered nature of violence which marks the experience of women as different.
This project has analyzed the condition of Eritrean and Tigrinya women who have fled across the borders of three geopolitically linked countries: Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan.
Women in these countries have constantly been subjected to bodily violence, victims of socio-political shifts and ethnic or border-related conflicts, even after Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace treaty in 2018.

The initial phase of the work concerned the documentation of Eritrean women fleeing from one of the most repressive regimes in the world and seeking refuge in Ethiopia between 2017 and 2019.
Then, after the Ethiopian federal army invaded Tigray with the support of the Eritrean military and Amhara militia on 4 November 2020, the project’s focus has broadened to include Tigrinya women joining Eritrean women in their flight from North Ethiopia to the capital Addis Ababa or Sudan mainly in refugee camps.
United Nations human rights experts have denounced all the forces involved in the Tigray war (2022) for crimes against humanity, particularly the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) and the Amhara militia (Fano) for their use of sexual violence.
The Eritrean army used sexual violence as a weapon of war against both Eritrean and Tigrinya women: on the former as punishment for fleeing their country, on the latter to exterminate them.
Their bodies became battlefield on which there were no sides.
Soldiers and militias subjected Tigrinya and Eritrean women to rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, sexual mutilation and other forms of torture, often using ethnic slurs and death threats. Survivors still suffer significant physical and mental health complications (Amnesty International, 2021).
After two years of conflict, a truce is being enforced in Tigray, but peace is a long process which cannot disregard the necessity of affirming human rights without gender discrimination. The violated bodies of these women demand ethical, juridical and historical care, for a better future

Um Rakuba refugee camp – Gedaref – Sudan. 7 June 2021.
A Tigrinya girl (21) is showing the signs of sexual violence. Two days after the event, she decided to undergo a medical examination and seek psychological support offered to women inside the camp. She had fled the bombing in Tigray and sought safety in Um Rakuba where she was sexually abused by compatriots within the camp. Many women experience violence not only in the countries at war from which they flee but also during their flight and in the refugee camps (“Sequestri lampo e abusi su bambini in Sudan”, Agenzia Habeshia, 2021). There is no separation between violence against women during conflicts and during ‘peacetime’; such forms of violence as public rape - designed to humiliate communities - only function in a context where deeply held patriarchal views permeate society (“Post-War Backlash Violence against Women: What Can Masculinity Explain?”, Pankhurst, 2008)
Foundation Human Rights for Eritreans (FHRE) has denounced the international community for providing aid to Eritrea which, even after the peace agreement with Ethiopia, maintains a dictatorial regime considered the worst after North Korea. This has spurred Eritreans, including many unaccompanied minors, to leave This however is kept hidden and not seen, so much that Asmara appears as a safe city.
Asmara-Massawa road − Eritrea. 23 March 2019.
An Eritrean girl is walking along the railway that connects Eritrea with Ethiopia.
The majority of children in Eritrea grow up without the protection of parents who either have emigrated or are serving indefinitely in the military in unknown locations. As a result, young children develop a strong urge to leave their country in search of a new life. During the three months following the peace agreement signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia in September 2018, the average daily arrivals in Europe revealed that many children had run away without their families knowing it, often attempting to reach their parents already abroad (“Nell’Africa dimenticata”, Avvenire, 2018).

Women experience conditions of extreme vulnerability linked to their own gender. They are subject to sexual violence, but also to the danger of dying in childbirth or losing their children.

Among the most atrocious acts that women suffer is that inflicted by the Eritrean soldiers who shoot girls at the stomach, as a punitive act preventing them from having children.

Axum – Ethiopia. 4 April 2019.
Regat (37) grew up in Eritrea and escaped to Ethiopia in 2010.
She says “I left Eritrea partly to help my family with their deep economic troubles, but I can’t see a future ahead.” She currently works at a café, trying to save up enough money to reach Sudan but earns only 600 birr – 12 dollars – per month. Ethiopia has a long-standing history of hosting refugees. The country maintains an open-door policy for them, offering humanitarian access and protection to those seeking asylum on its territory. Ongoing instability within neighboring states has resulted in a sustained flow of refugees, either as a direct result of internal conflict or because of human rights abuses (“Refugee situation”, Operation Data Portal, 2020). Ethiopia has now become one of the most insecure countries in the world, especially for refugee women.
Kassala – Sudan. 12 June 2021.
Body of a child who died at birth because his refugee mother arrived in very critical condition at the clinic; she was saved. A stillborn child of an unaccompanied mother is returned to her directly, wrapped in a piece of cloth. Many refugee and migrant women have additional needs (economic, financial and social) that may interfere or compete with pregnancy care.
Being a refugee or migrant is not only a risk factor in itself, but also a proxy for other risk factors such as lower socioeconomic status, higher burden of disease in the country of origin, language difficulties and low health literacy.
According to the BMC (“Pregnancy and Childbirth”, November 2014) migrant refugee women from different African regions appear to be at greater risk of specific adverse pregnancy outcomes. Women go through pregnancy in extremely difficult conditions, often when their bodies are still immature and without the help of any family member. The burial of a stillborn child in a foreign land or in an unknown location is an insurmountable trauma for mothers.
Axum - Ethiopia. 4 April 2019.
Hellen (22) is showing a wound caused by a bullet shot during a military exercise in Eritrea. The incident was reported as accidental, but since it occurred after the Eritrean police stopped Hellen during her attempt to escape to Ethiopia, it is highly likely that the shot was intentional and intended as a punitive act.
Hellen made three previous attempts to escape from Eritrea but was always captured at the border. The injury has caused her multiple health issues but she is nonetheless traveling alone and hopes to reach Europe.
The United Nations Human Rights Council reports that violence against women and girls is widespread and indeed notorious in military training camps (“Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea”, 2015).
Village next to Massawa − Eritrea. 23 March 2019.
Muslim women gather in groups as a measure of protection from possible attacks. In theory, Eritrea recognizes four religious groups: Sunni Islam, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea. In reality, only the Orthodox Eritrean Church is truly accepted while Muslims are persecuted. Unregistered religious groups are considered illegal and punished for practicing their faiths publicly.
Some protesters died following an uprising in Asmara in 2017 triggered by the forced closure of a Muslim school.Muslim women detained in prison are more likely to experience torture and sexual abuse (“Eritrea Opposition: security forces kill 28 protesters”, Al Jazeera, 2017). They are clearly distinguishable from other religious minorities by their veils, which makes them particularly exposed to violence.

Since the beginning of the conflict in Tigray, 917 unaccompanied and 4,056 separated minors have been registered by the United Nations (“Emergency site Assessment Northern Ethiopia Crisis 4”, IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix, 2021). The Tigray conflict is having a devastating impact on children. Health facilities have been damaged and there is a shortage of medical supplies and drugs, leaving children, pregnant women and those who have suffered sexual violence without access to vital healthcare. Children have also been out of school for months, putting them at risk of exploitation.

Um Rakuba refugee camp – Gedaref - Sudan. 4 June 2021.
A group of unaccompanied underage girls are playing together. These girls fled the conflict in Tigray and arrived alone in Sudan. Children separated from their parents are put in foster or group care in this camp until being reunited with their families. Only one of these girls has received news from her family; the others do not know if any family member is still alive.
Um Rakuba refugee camp – Gedaref – Sudan. 15 June 2021.
A Tigrinya woman holding a religious pendant belonging to her husband who went missing during the conflict in Tigray. She says “It is the only thing left of my past life”.
When the bombing started, her husband joined the army after showing her and their two children how to escape. She has not heard from him since. Today she lives in poverty, supported only by the aid provided within the camp. A full-scale humanitarian crisis is unfolding as thousands of refugees flee the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region to eastern Sudan. Since fighting began in early November 2020, refugees have been arriving at remote border points that are hours away from the nearest towns in Sudan. Many are women and children, most of whom arrive with barely any belongings and exhausted from walking long distances over harsh terrain (“Ethiopia Tigray emergency”, UNHRC, 2020).
On 9 July 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Hamed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace deal after twenty years of war. This agreement, initiated by Abiy Hamed, earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. However, Eritreans called this agreement an “external peace” because it was a response to geopolitical pressure and, unfortunately, has not led to a reduction in human rights violations by the Eritrean regime. The support of the Eritrean army to the Ethiopian federal government in the war in Tigray in 2020, which caused more than 600,000 deaths, confirms the inconsistency of that peace deal.
The Tekezé river − Humera border − Ethiopia. 2 April 2019.
Some Ethiopian women are crossing the river illegally to reach Sudan. The Tekezé river connects Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. After the peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2018, the border of Humera was opened for the Ethiopians towards Eritrea but not - except very briefly - for the Eritreans to Ethiopia. The border to Sudan has always remained closed. Ethiopians and Eritreans are helped to emigrate across the Tekezé river by goods and human traffickers.
Addis Ababa – Ethiopia. 6 December 2022.
Eritrean women in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. One of them has just given birth to the child carried under a blanket. Each of these women face problems caused by the war, struggle every day to get food. Conflicts make it more difficult for women and girls to produce, process, and provide food for themselves and their families; their roles in preventing and responding to food insecurity are vital. Because of gender inequality, women and girls are disproportionately affected by food insecurity, risking famine and gender-based violence both in peacetime and during conflicts. In a press release on food insecurity issued in September 2021 by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) – which Ethiopia, one of the founding members, has belonged to since January 1986 - 8.6 million Ethiopians did not have regular access to food in 2020, making it one of the 10 worst global food crises.
Axum – Ethiopia. 4 April 2019.
Refugee women often leave the camps for urban centers where they live in the same building and try to create a community and help each other. Living in a community is also a form of protection against gender-based violence which these women often suffer. Violence against women represents a major problem in Ethiopia: according to the Global Gender Gap Index of 2018, 71% of Ethiopian women fall victim to violence during the course of their lives. Refugee women opting to leave the camps for urban centers try to earn enough money to get by and raise their children, but city life also puts them at risk of exploitation (“L’abbraccio tra Etiopia ed Eritrea. Come cambiano mobilità e migrazioni?”, Istituto per gli studi di politica internazionale, 2018). Community life gives rise to new relationships which provide these women with material, emotional and psychological support in dealing with their daily problems.
Al Fashega − Gedaref State − Sudan. 1 June 2021.
A mother taking care of her daughter exhausted by food shortages at an emergency center that also welcomes refugee women and children, who are in critical condition due to their journeys.
The journey of women stops in countries bordering their own, because the treacherous condition of the journey is more difficult to face for the children traveling with them. Even when they leave with their husbands, women often stop or stay behind with children in need of care. This separation happens because men continue the journey in the hope to be able to reach Europe to help their family left in Africa.
According to UNICEF (2019) nearly 65 per cent of refugees in Sudan are children. Many experience trauma prior to and during their journey to Sudan, putting them at high risk of life.
Since 2014, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has documented more than 32,000 deaths and disappearances during migration journeys worldwide, although the true number of migrant fatalities is unknown as many deaths go unrecorded. Data on deaths of migrant children tend to be even more limited. Accordingto IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, nearly 1,600 children have been reported dead since 2014.
Addis Ababa − Ethiopia. 6 November 2017.
Rita (39) is an Eritrean refugee escaped dictatorship with her daughter, son and husband. She shows some objects which once belonging to her daughter Elena, who died when she was 7 years old while crossing the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2016. Elena had a congenital liver disease which did not allow her to survive the journey. She was buried along the migration route, in a place that has no connection with her family.
Rita says she would like to live where her daughter is buried, that “having moved away from my daughter’s body means having lost her a second time”.
Kassala – Sudan. 12 June 2021.
A midwife is suturing the vulva of this girl who had complications after giving birth because of genital mutilation. The girl came from a refugee camp on the Ethiopian border and moved to Kassala to give birth. According to UN estimates, 200 million girls and women around the world have undergone genital mutilation, 80% of whom are Africans living predominantly in the Horn of Africa. Of the females aged 15 to 49 years who have undergone genital mutilation, are 83% in Eritrea and 74% are in Ethiopia between 2004 and 2015 (Female genital mutilation: a global concern, UNICEF, 2016). Most of these women have had what the World Health Organization calls “type III circumcision”, an extreme form of mutilation in which the inner and outer labia of the vulva are removed, usually together with the clitoris.
The consequences can be anorgasmia, severe pain during sexual intercourse, cysts and severe infection. In some cases, girls are unable to pass urine or menstrual blood.
Addis Ababa – Ethiopia. 3 December 2022.
An Eritrean woman is praying in the shack where she lives. Eritrean women are generally religious and find comfort in prayer.
When women arrive in Addis Abeba, they settle in temporary homes and try to find a job. Afterwards they try to move into more comfortable accommodations but many of them remain in precarious housing for years, risking even more sexual abuse. Empirical studies consistently show high rates of victimization among undocumented migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees, both while in transit and within destination countries (“Migrant experiences of sexual and gender based violence: a critical interpretative synthesis”, Globalization and Health, 2022).
Furthermore, migrants with unstable residency status in the host countries face economic, social, and institutional barriers in seeking judicial redress and support.
Many women, pregnant as a result of having been raped in Tigray, are socially rejected and condemned in Sudan. This center, when possible, tries to arrange marriages between the rape victims and their abusers, or with the fathers who do not recognize their own child; the center is thus accepted and constitutes an alternative to prison. Extra marital sex, called zina, is a crime for both men and women but women who become pregnant as a result are severely punished. Police are present in maternity wards and investigate whether or not a pregnant woman is married. Research published by the Health and Human Rights Journal reports about handcuffed women in delivery rooms. Zina is considered a precept of Allah, to be punished according to Islamic tradition.
Khartoum – Sudan. 22 May 2021.
Unmarried Sudanese and refugee women live in a shelter with their children. In Sudan, having children out of wedlock is not only a serious crime resulting in imprisonment but also a terrible stigma, even if the child was conceived by rape.
The war in Tigray is estimated to have caused 800 thousand deaths and displaced 2.5 million people, creating a major humanitarian crisis largely ignored by the West. United Nations Human Rights Council experts on Ethiopia have found reasonable grounds to believe that Tigrayan [Tigrinya?] forces are guilty of war crimes, having killed civilians and unarmed people, raped women and pillaged, damaged or destroyed infrastructures and civil properties (Human Rights Council: Reports, 51/46, September 2022). The president of the Commission, Kaari Betty Murungi, denounced the federal government’s use of starvation as a method of warfare.
Addis Ababa – Ethiopia. 10 December 2022.
Tigrinya and Eritrean women are praying for their dead or missing children. While the Eritrean army attacks Tigray, women from these two countries get together in memory of their children.
Addis Ababa – Ethiopia. 30 November 2022.
Yemane (23) is showing the scar from a shooting by soldiers in Tigray. Yemane was living in the Mai Aini camp in Tigary with her husband, two children and a sister when the war broke out. She escaped with her family towards Amhara region at Dabbat refugee camp. Upon reaching the refugee camp, she was separated from her husband and raped in front of her children. The Amhara region was too dangerous and the whole family, who had gathered, decided to flee to Addis Ababa. Amhara soldiers shot at the group, wounding both her and her sister; Yemane managed to get away with her children and her husband, but she still doesn’t know what happened to her sister.
Yemane suffers from anxiety disorders linked to post traumatic stress and feels responsible for not aiding her sister. The UNHRC declared that 24,000 Eritrean refugees in the Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps, located in the Mai Tsebriarea in Tigray, live in a state of constant terror without access to any kind of humanitarian aid (“Thousands of Eritrean refugees trapped in conflict in Tigray”, UNHRC, 2021).
Refugee camps have been attacked and many Eritreans killed or tortured. Refugees International reports 20,000 missing Eritreans (“Nowhere to run: Eritrean refugee in Tigray”, March, 2022). Don Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest and president of the Habeshia Agency, has denounced the forced repatriation of thousands of Eritreans who had sought protection in Ethiopia (Africa Express, 2021).
Addis Ababa – Ethiopia. 8 December 2022.
Knife wrapped in a cloth belonging to Ruta (40), who extracted it from under her mattress in order to show it.
Ruta arrived with her two children in the Adi Harush camp in Tigray in 2019, after Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace agreement. Three soldiers entered her tent and stabbed Ruta in the back as she tried to defend herself from sexual assault. She managed to save herself and, once recovered, she fled with her children to Addis Ababa. She kept the knife and says “I took this knife in case I needed to defend myself, and I still can’t get rid of it. My blood is still on the blade.” According to the UN (September 2022), rape and sexual violence have happened “on a staggering scale” from the start of the conflict. Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara soldiers have targeted Tigrinya women and girls with particular violence and brutality. Reports from survivors are dreadful: mass rapes lasting for days on military bases, the insertion of nails, gravel, metal and plastic objects into the vagina causing sometimes irreversible damage.
Addis Ababa – Ethiopia. 3 December 2022.
Merhawit (31) ran away from Eritrea and was living in the Mai Aini camp when the war broke out. She fled towards the Amhara region together with her three children, husband and brother. At the time, she was a few months pregnant with her youngest child who was then born in Addis Ababa. Soldiers captured her husband and brother during this flight; she still doesn’t know what happened to them. Once in Addis Ababa she gave up her elder son to a priest’s care. She struggles to survive, gathering a little money by begging. The Amhara security forces and the Eritrean army in alliance with the Ethiopian federal army are responsible for a wave of mass detentions, killings and forced expulsions in Tigray. There is now an effort to enforce the 2022 peace agreement in this northern Ethiopian region and to also seek justice for the victims and survivors of the conflict (“Crimes against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing in Ethiopia’s Western Tigray Zone” Amnesty International e Human Rights Watch”, 2022).
Yemane suffers from anxiety disorders linked to post traumatic stress and feels responsible for not aiding her sister. The UNHRC declared that 24,000 Eritrean refugees in the Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps, located in the Mai Tsebriarea in Tigray, live in a state of constant terror without access to any kind of humanitarian aid (“Thousands of Eritrean refugees trapped in conflict in Tigray”, UNHRC, 2021).
Refugee camps have been attacked and many Eritreans killed or tortured. Refugees International reports 20,000 missing Eritreans (“Nowhere to run: Eritrean refugee in Tigray”, March, 2022). Don Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest and president of the Habeshia Agency, has denounced the forced repatriation of thousands of Eritreans who had sought protection in Ethiopia. (Africa Express, 2021).

Entering Asmara, a peaceful atmosphere reigns: streets are clean, the Italian architecture gives the city a European flavor, and police are nowhere in sight. Everything seems in strong contrast with the stories of migrants fleeing this country. The espionage network is so widespread that it does not need policemen on the street and the prisons are hidden holes within the city.

A Report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, published 4 June 2016, denounced the Eritrean government for its pervasive espionage system, its control and repression both within the country itself and among the Eritrean diaspora communities around the world. This regime has not only arbitrarily arrested, tortured and disappeared people but has also executed them without trial.

Asmara − Eritrea. 22 March 2019.
An Eritrean woman on the streets of the city.
Addis Ababa − Ethiopia. 6 November 2017.
The home of an Eritrean refugee family living in Addis Ababa. A migratory journey can pause for many years and women decorate the rooms in a way to recreate a familiar atmosphere, which allows them to feel closer to those they have lost. Migrants usually flee empty-handed, leaving behind all objects that might be an obstacle on the way. However, once they settle in a host country, they try to recover some of their belongings through cross border trade or with the help of goods smugglers. According to UNHRC (Fact Sheet, 2021), Ethiopia is the third largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, sheltering 788,972 registered refugees and asylum-seekers, overwhelmingly from South Sudan, Somalia, the Sudan Republic and Eritrea (the latter accounting for nearly 145,752 people).
Addis Ababa - Ethiopia. 31 October 2017.
Yohonna (22) is in bed with her mother and has just received treatment for complications following the removal of her kidney, which she had after being shot by the Eritrean police.
Yohanna was shot at the Shambuko (Eritrea) border and woke up in a hospital in Ethiopia, where she learned that one of her kidneys had been removed. She has no medical record or written document justifying either the surgery or the kidney removal. In 1998, Eritrea and Ethiopia began a two-year border dispute which claimed at least 70,000 lives.
Hitsats refugee camp – Ethiopia. 31 March 2019.
A refugee Eritrean woman is under a tree just outside the camp. Hitsats camp has hosted almost 23,000 Eritrean refugees (UNHRC); its population has more than doubled since the border opened following the 2018 peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is one of the four refugee camps in Tigray for Eritreans; with 173,879 officially registered refugees, the third largest refugee population in Ethiopia (“Operation data portal”, UNHRC, August 2018).
Since its start on 3 November 2020, the Tigray war has been particularly harsh for Eritrean refugees in the Hitsats, Adi Harush, Mai Aini and Shimelba Hitsats camps in northern Ethiopia: a large number of Eritreans (“Etiopia: campi profughi degli eritrei allo sbando, aprire corridoi e aiuti umanitari”, Agenzia Habeshia, December 2020) have been forced to repatriate (“UN Investigator Probes Alleged Forced Return of Eritrean Refugees from Ethiopia”, Voa News, February 2021).
Village 8 refugee camp – Gedaref – Sudan. 5 June 2021.
A Tigrinya girl holds the hem of her dress because she seeks relief by touching the cloth. This girl arrived here completely alone and shocked; nobody in the camp knows her biographical data, or her personal story. It is unknown whether she had psychological issues before the war in Tigray, but she shows clear signs of post-traumatic disorder, consisting mainly in anxious and fearful states.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a significant percentage of people who live through armed conflicts suffer from serious mental health problems and develop harmful behavior that will hinder their ability to live a healthy life. Among armed conflict survivors, one in five is living with some form of mental disorder, from mild depression or anxiety to psychosis (“Mental health conditions in conflict situations are much more widespread than we thought”, June 2019).
Addis Ababa – Ethiopia. 6 November 2017.
An Eritrean child in the living room his parents share with other stationary refugee families. Conditions are harsh for refugee children, because they spend many hours alone while their parents are out trying to make a living in a foreign country. Since 2000, Ethiopia has hosted thousands of Eritrean refugees fleeing involuntary open-ended military conscription, arbitrary arrest and detention without trial, compulsory land acquisition, and other systematic human rights violations. Following the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship signed by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments in July 2018, UNHRC has seen an increase of arrivals from Eritrea. By the end of June 2020, the registered population of Shire included 149,114 Eritreans 48% of whom were children (“Ethiopia Refugee Response Plan – Quarterly Monitoring Report”, UNHRC, 2020). Following the outbreak of war in Tigray in November 2020, many children and women from this area went to Addis Ababa.