Sexual violence in the Tigray conflict – from Tigray War and Regional Implications

This is a chapter from the report: Tigray War and Regional Implications, which you can The Tigray War and Regional Implications – Volume 1.

Sexual violence in the Tigray conflict

By Sally Keeble[1]

Extreme sexual violence is a brutal hallmark of the armed conflict in Tigray. After Ethiopian and Eritrean forces invaded the territory, it quickly became clear that sexual violence was being used as a deliberate act of war, accompanied by ethnically-abusive language indicative of genocide. Acknowledgement by the international community of the prevalence of the crimes, let alone their genocidal implications, has been slow.


Justice has been completely lacking for Tigrayan survivors of rape, conservatively estimated to number 10,000 in March 2021.[2]   It’s led to a warning from former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, that without   action over the abuses in Tigray, the commitments made by the international community to ending sexual violence in conflict are no more than paper promises.[3]


The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church added his voice to the outrage over the rape of women in Tigray with a message smuggled out of the country on a mobile phone in May 2021. [4] The UK bears a particular responsibility for the inertia, as the leader of the global campaign announced in May 2012 at the start of the UK’s presidency of the G8. [5]


The war started when Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, sent the Ethiopian National Defence Force into the Tigray in November 2020 following an attack on its Northern base by forces of the regional government headed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Ethiopian forces were quickly joined by those of Isaias Afwerki, Eritrean President. It was an alliance founded in the peace process between the two countries, for which the Ethiopian leader was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2019. Reports soon surfaced on social media and from refugee camps in Sudan where women arrived telling of horrific sexual violence by the invading forces. The troops’ attacks were directed at Tigrayan women and also Eritrean refugees at camps in Tigray.  The trickle of stories soon became a torrent, despite the communications blockade imposed by the Ethiopian government.


9.1 A timeline of sexual violence


Between November 2020 and the end of March 2021 the pattern of sexual violence in Tigray became horrifically clear. It would be easy to fill this entire book with the women’s stories. The suffering, courage and dignity of all of them is respected. Below are just some of the testimonies that emerged on social media, were reported by NGOs and online agencies, and latterly covered by mainstream media.


  • November 2020: The first accounts of rape reached Tigray Media House[6], the major online platform for the Tigrayan community, soon after the fall of the regional capital, Mekelle in November 2020.


  • Between December 2020 and January 2021 numbers rocketed and the first warnings emerged of the scale of the problem The UN Human Rights Office reported that 136 cases of rape were recorded in hospitals in Mekelle, Ayder, Adigrat and Wukro in the east of Tigray, with warnings that many more attacks went unreported due to stigma attached to the crime, and lack of access to services. The report, released in March 2021 said health[7] facilities throughout the region had been systematically destroyed by the invading military.


  • January 2021: Reuters carried a report of a young Tigrayan woman at Hamdayet refugee camp who was treated on arrival by the camp doctor, Tewadrous Tefera Limeuh.[8] He was one of the first to identify the genocidal nature of the sexual violence being deployed in his homeland. He treated the young woman for a pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases and guided her to a psychotherapist. The young woman said the soldier who had attacked her at gunpoint had given her a stark choice – to be killed or raped.


  • February 2021: Agence France Presse carried a report of a gang rape of a young woman from Edaga Hamus who was attacked on three separate occasions by groups of Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers. Meanwhile in Mekelle sexual assaults were taking place with impunity and in daylight on students at the Ayder Referral Hospital details of which were included in an extensive report posted in early March by EEPA, the Europe External Programme for Africa, a Belgium-based NGO.[9]


  • March 2021: Agence France Presse posted a lengthy report recording the sadistic nature of the attacks by invading soldiers, including their practice of abducting and detaining Tigrayan women for the purposes of sexual abuse. This included an account [10]of a woman abducted off the streets by Ethiopian soldiers, held in a cell in a military camp and raped by groups of up to ten soldiers over a period of two weeks. After being taken back home, she was then raped again, with her three children in the next room. In another incident, an 18-year-old girl from Abiy Addi fought off the soldier trying to rape her and was shot in a hand and leg. Her hand was later amputated at hospital in Mekelle. Images of a hand, accompanying her testimony, went viral.[11]


However, it was pictures and a video circulating on social media later that month which came to symbolize the sadistic nature of the sexual abuse by then being deployed wantonly against Tigrayan women.  These showed objects being extracted from the genitals of a woman raped multiple times by Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers during an 11-day ordeal. The objects included a blood-stained rock, two 3-inch nails, and plastic items. [12]

A report that identified key features of the campaign of sexual violence in Tigray was published at the end of March by Insecurity Insight, a Swiss-based research institute[13]. It analysed 36 incidents of sexual violence in Tigray in which 106 girls and women were attacked by at least 144 soldiers. Almost half the perpetrators were reported as being Ethiopian, and a third Eritrean, with the rest Amharan, a combination of Ethiopian and Eritrean, or unidentified. Three quarters of the women said they were raped by several men. The report cites numerous cases of women being raped in front of family members, and of men being told to rape female relatives and beaten or shot if they refused. In one particularly appalling case the report described how six women were gang raped by 30 Eritrean soldiers who joked and took photos during the women’s ordeal. One escaped, but was caught again by Eritrean soldiers, stripped, stabbed, injected with drugs and raped for ten days. Her 12-year-old son was shot dead in front of her. A preliminary analysis by the International Rescue Committee of gender-based violence experienced by women in camps for internally-based people set out the continuing problems and erosion of women’s safety generally. The Committee’s full report is due out in late May.[14]


By the time mainstream international media started carrying major reports of the sexual violence, the evidence was overwhelming. Nima Elbagir’s report on CNN from Hamdayet refugee camp in Sudan at the end of March carried accounts of survivors. It also gave important evidence from the camp’s doctor Tedros Tefera who said, “The women that have been raped say that the things that they say to them when they were raping them is that they need to change their identity – to either Amharise them or at least leave their Tigrinya status… and that they’ve come there to cleanse them… to cleanse the blood line.”[15] The CNN report showed photographs of the objects the doctor removed from a patient’s vagina. However, the reporter said the video, which had clearly caused her distress, was too graphic to be shown on mainstream media.  Reports on Channel 4 by Jamal Osman included footage from the clinic for women and children at Mekelle Hospital which had dealt with 260 rape victims[16]. The nurse in charge was overcome when talking about the experiences of her patients. South Africa’s eNCA[17] and public broadcaster SABC[18] carried reports of men being forced to rape their family members.


9.2 Number of rapes


Figures of numbers of women raped in Tigray range from a low of 108 to a high of more than 10,000. Exact numbers are impossible to verify, although the evidence set out above shows the that use of sexual violence by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces against women in Tigray is endemic.


The low figure comes from the Ethiopian Commission on Human Rights[19] which reported on 11 February 11 2021 that it had found 108 rape cases in a handful of clinics over a two-month period; 52 cases in Mekelle, 22 in Adigrat, 7 in Wukro and 27 in Ayder. It admitted actual figures could be higher. Its assessment was conducted in part remotely due to the insecurity and remoteness of the region, made more difficult by the lack of official infrastructure. The Commission did not say who, or what, was behind the number of rapes, although it noted a number of prisoners had recently escaped.


However, these low figures are flatly contradicted by other assessments.  Seven hundred and fifty women were raped and admitted to Ayder hospital in Mekelle alone, according to a report by the Australian-based Dedebit media in January 2021. In Adigrat the public hospital reported it had received over 174 rape survivors since the beginning of the war.[20]  In March, Wafaa Said,[21] the deputy UN aid co-ordinator in Ethiopia, was reported as saying  that at least 516 rape cases had been reported by five medical facilities in Mekelle, Adigrat, Wukro, Shire and Axum. However, due to the closure of most health facilities in Tigray, and the stigma associated with rape, she said that the actual numbers would be much higher. In

its detailed report of 8 March, quoted above, the EEPA set out a series of reports from aid workers, health facilities and agencies with numbers of women involved. It concluded, “Ten thousand women: this is the conservative estimate of the number of victims of rape in Tigray.” The figure has been widely quoted since with little challenge.


Since then, there have been two very much higher figures – both from impeccable sources – of women affected by the sexual violence in Tigray. The first is from the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Under-Secretary- General Pramila Patten. At a high-level meeting between the US and EU on the eve of the G7 meeting in Cornwall, UK, she said that 22,500 women in Tigray were in need of medical treatment as a result of sexual violence during the conflict. Further information on the meeting is set out below.[22]


An even higher figure came from the UK during a question-and-answer session on Tigray in the UK Parliament on 14 June[23]. In response to a question about the sexual violence in Tigray, James Duddridge MP, Africa Minister, said, “We fear that probably at least 26,000 people are likely to require support in the coming months. That is based on UN estimates. It is very difficult to give more precise figures on the types of atrocities and the perpetrators, given that we do not have full access.”


9.3 Distinctive characteristics of sexual violence in the Tigray conflict

The cases cited above show the distinctive characteristics that have emerged of the deployment of sexual violence in Tigray. These include, as referenced above:


  • Linkage to attacks on Tigrayan men attempting to protect women from assault. EEPA reports people in Axum being shot for attempting to go to the assistance of women raped during the massacre in the town.[24]
  • Kidnap and detention of women and repeated rapes over a period of time as recorded by Agence France Presse.
  • Gang rapes by groups of soldiers as recorded by Insecurity Insight.
  • Rapes of young girls. CNN reported a doctor who said the youngest person she had treated for rape was eight years old.
  • Men forced to rape family members, like the grandfather of the young woman in Abiy Addi who was taken out and shot for refusing to comply with the soldier’s instructions to have sex with his granddaughter.
  • Use of extreme violence, including the mutilation of women’s genitals as reported by CNN and Reuters.
  • Specific reference to rape being used to “purify” or “cleanse women,” including the case referred to below, widely reported, including by Al-Jazeera. A trenchant description of the genocidal nature of the rape in Tigray came from Cara Anna, in her article published by Associated Press on 7 April. She reports soldiers who told a woman they attacked, “Claim to be Amhara and we’ll give you back your house and find you a husband. But if you claim to be Tigrayan, we will come and rape you again.”[25]
  • The covering up of crimes by soldiers threatening their victims with further violence if they seek help, and also threatening, or attacking, those who try to help survivors. Such threats, recorded by Insecurity Insight among others, has been linked to the reluctance of women to access medical care.


The sexual violence deployed in Tigray is the worst the humanitarian sector had seen for many years, according to Robert Mardini, director-general of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross. He said the reports received by his organisation’s staff in hospitals and clinics were, “extremely horrific, very shocking…. I haven’t heard such terrible accounts for more than two decades in the humanitarian sector,” [26] In his denouncement of the sexual violence the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Abune Mathias, said what was happening in Tigray was a genocide and governments of the world knew it. In the article cited above, he described the raping of women as being among the worst of the crimes: “The men who died are better off than them (the women). On Tigray women, they are placing mental scars that will never be erased in their entire lives.  …. Such an injustice has never been done or heard of before. It is very dreadful. Especially the raping of women is slimy and very filthy deed. The taboo of taboos, the despicable of despicable is being committed. Is it really right to commit such bold and filthy deed?”

9.4 International law on sexual violence in armed conflict


Rape and other forms of sexual violence in armed conflict are specifically prohibited under international humanitarian law. The broad principle was set out in the Fourth Geneva Convention which says in Article 27 on protection of civilians in times of war that, “Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault.”


Since then, a complex of statutes and judgements of international tribunals has developed spelling out the details of the provisions and the implications both for civilians and the military, and also setting out a broad definition of sexual violence to include psychological as well as physical abuse. Importantly the provisions apply both in cases of international and internal conflict. A full discussion is contained in the UK government’s “International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict.”[27]


It sets out three possible approaches to dealing with sexual violence in conflict.


  1. as a war crime or a violation of the laws and customs of war – Sexual violence may constitute a war crime if it’s committed against a civilian during an international or internal armed conflict, and associated with the conflict, by a perpetrator who is aware of the context.


  1. as a crime against humanity – This may apply if the sexual violence was committed as part of a widespread or systematic general attack, which could include in the context of Tigray, the massacres, on a civilian population. Again, the perpetrator would need to be aware that he was acting in the context of a conflict.


  • as genocide – This may apply if there was evidence that the sexual violence formed a constitutive act of genocide, as set out below, and also that it was committed with the intention of destroying in whole or part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.


There’s clear evidence that the sexual violence in Tigray meets the criteria set out in the third of these categories and is genocidal. It meets the criteria of being genocidal in that it has caused bodily and mental harm and prevented births among Tigrayan women. The language reported being used by the attackers also makes it clear that the aim was the destruction of the Tigrayan community. Further evidence of this came in a case of literally searing brutality reported by Al Jazeera in April. A young woman was held and repeatedly raped by Amhara militia who then cauterized her vagina with a hot metal rod. When she finally reached safety, she reported that the soldiers told her, “You did nothing bad to us…. Our problem is with your womb. Your womb gives birth to Woyane. A Tigrayan womb should never give birth.”[28] Woyane, Kassa says, is a derogatory term used to refer to the TPLF, whilst a blog post on the London School of Economics website describes “Death to Woyane,” being used as abusive chant by people in Oromia and Amhara[29].  Norwegian academic, Kjetil Tronvill, was among the first to make the argument in February 2021.[30] His analysis was echoed by Dr Tefera at Hamdayet refugee camp.[31]


9.5 UN resolutions on sexual violence in armed conflict


The UN Security Council has passed five resolutions condemning, in trenchant terms, sexual violence in conflict.


The first, in October 2000, was Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security[32]. It calls on all parties to armed conflict “to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse.” It also says all states must “put an end to impunity and prosecute those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes including those relating to sexual and other violence against women and girls” and that they should “exclude these crimes, where feasible from amnesty provisions.”


Resolution 1820[33], passed in 2008, notes that “Women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group”. It demands that all parties to armed conflict stop all acts of sexual violence, including rape, take steps to protect women and girls and take disciplinary action against perpetrators, including military commanders. It then goes on to say that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.” It was in the wake of this resolution, that the UN appointed a Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, to spearhead its work in this area. This is the post currently held by Under-Secretary- General Pramila Patten, whose action on Tigray is set out below


9.6 The international community’s response


Despite the overwhelming evidence of the sexual terror unleashed on women in Tigray, the number of harrowing pictures and testimonies from refugee camps and medical facilities, and the plethora of instruments for enforcement action against perpetrators, the response of the international community has been slow. Any justice for the women has been missing in action.


The first to call out the sexual violence and express her concern about it was Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile, and currently UN Commissioner for Human Rights. [34] She is an outspoken and long-standing advocate for the role of women in peace processes. In a news conference in Geneva on 9 December 2020, she said her office had corroborated information “of gross human rights violations and abuses – and serious violations of international humanitarian law, including indiscriminate attacks that have resulted in civilian casualties and destruction of civilian objects, looting, abductions and sexual violence against women and girls…. There is an urgent need for independent monitoring of the human rights situation in the Tigray region, for all necessary measures to protect civilians, and for accountability for violations.”


The European Union cited sexual violence in Tigray as one of the factors in its decision to postponing aid to Ethiopia. In a blog on 15 January, High Representative Josep Borrell wrote, “The situation on the ground goes well beyond a purely internal ‘law and order’ operation. We receive consistent reports of ethnic-targeted violence, killings, massive looting, rapes, forceful returns of refugees and possible war crimes. The European Union has been and will remain a reliable partner of Ethiopia…. Just in terms of bilateral development cooperation, we have provided € 815 million over the last 7 years (2014-2020). On top of this, Ethiopia is benefiting from € 409 million worth of projects under the EU Trust Fund for Africa, focused mainly on support to refugees and host populations. To help Ethiopia face the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU mobilized €487 million to support the government’s Health Preparedness and Response Plan. And several budget support operations were fast-tracked to enable the country to face the economic strains of the pandemic. However…. under the current circumstances, in particular in the absence of full humanitarian access to all areas of the conflict, we have no alternative but to postpone the planned disbursement of €88 million in budget support.”[35]


Later in January 2021, a statement of great concern came from the UN’s Pramila Patten.[36]. She urged all parties to commit to a zero-tolerance policy of all forms of sexual violence. She noted the high number of alleged rapes in Mekelle, and also said there were, “Disturbing reports of individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence. Some women have also reportedly been forced by military elements to have sex in exchange for basic commodities.” “Survival sex” was also documented by the International Rescue Committee’s May 2021 report cited above.


Despite the evidence that the sexual violence was overwhelmingly being committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, she called on all parties to the conflict “to commit to a zero-tolerance policy for crimes of sexual violence, in line with their respective obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law. While taking note of the monitoring and investigation missions recently conducted by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in Western Tigray and the Amhara region, I call on the Government of Ethiopia to further exercise its due diligence obligations to protect all civilians from sexual and other violence, regardless of their ethnic origin and those displaced by conflict, and to promptly allow for an independent inquiry into all allegations of sexual and other forms of violence, to establish the facts and hold perpetrators accountable, provide redress to victims, and prevent further grave violations. My Office and the United Nations system stand ready to support national authorities to put in place rigorous measures to prevent and respond to possible violations.”


The commitment to support the Ethiopian Government’s investigative efforts became something of an elephant trap for the UN. The Ethiopian Government agreed a joint inquiry between its arms-length Human Rights Commission and the UN, which parked the issue while the Ethiopian and Eritrean troops continued their abuse of Tigrayan women. The UN Security Council expressed “deep concern” about the continuing sexual abuse in late April[37]. There continue to be calls for the UN to launch a fully independent investigation into the sexual violence in Tigray.[38]


At the end of February, the new US administration under Joe Biden called for Eritrean troop withdrawal, citing their involvement in sexual violence.[39] “We strongly condemn the killings, forced removals and displacements, sexual assaults, and other extremely serious human rights violations and abuses by several parties that multiple organizations have reported in Tigray.  We are also deeply concerned by the worsening humanitarian crisis. The United States has repeatedly engaged the Ethiopian government on the importance of ending the violence, ensuring unhindered humanitarian access to Tigray, and allowing a full, independent, international investigation into all reports of human rights violations, abuses, and atrocities,” the US Department of State said.


Notable by its silence has been the UK government, despite its role in the global campaign against sexual violence in conflict. Former UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, teamed up with Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2012 to launch a  global protocol for action published two years later.[40] The guidance was updated in 2017[41], and in June 2020  Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Foreign Office Minister and the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict launched a new code created alongside Nobel Laureate Nadia Murad and the Institute for International Criminal Investigations (IICI), to strengthen justice for survivors around the world.”[42]

Lord Ahmad said, “We are determined to tackle these most abhorrent of crimes. The UK remains committed to take action – action to prevent violence, action to support survivors and tackle the stigma they face – the appalling sense of stigma – and action to hold perpetrators to account.”


Yet the UK Government has said little, let alone taken any action, over sexual violence in Tigray.  In March 2021, in response to a question from Sarah Champion MP specifically about sexual violence, the Africa Minister James Duddridge MP said the government would monitor work of the task force set up by the Ethiopian government. The response was later, and exceptionally, corrected to say the UK government had strongly condemned killings of civilians and acts of sexual violence “via a joint statement on Ethiopia with 41 other countries at the 46th Session of the Human Rights Council.”


Later that month, Helen Hayes MP,[43] led a parliamentary debate in which she asked the UK Government to, “Specifically ensure that evidence of the widespread use of rape and sexual violence in the Tigray conflict is collated and that the perpetrators are brought to justice in line with UN Security Council resolution 1820. It is wholly unacceptable that soldiers from the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies should be able to rape women with impunity. Equally, it is unacceptable that their commanders-in-chief should permit their forces to use rape as a weapon of war or fail to bring to justice those under their command who commit such crimes.”


Yet the Foreign Office minister who responded to her speech, James Cleverly MP, failed to mention sexual violence at all.


Finally, at the UK International Development Select Committee inquiry into Tigray in April, Africa minister, James Duddridge MP, conceded that there had been rapes. In response to a question about whether he thought rape was being used as a weapon of war, he said, “That is what people are saying is happening, and I have no reason to believe that is wrong. There are verbal accounts of what has happened, but getting the solid evidence is tricky. I know that sexual violence was reported to Christian (McPhail, UK Ambassador to Ethiopia) and his team. Where you draw the line between it being just something that is horrific, where it is targeted at a population and where it becomes a weapon of war.”[44]


The strongest condemnation yet from the international community came on 22 March 2021. A joint statement was issued by 11 leaders of UN agencies, including Mr. Mark Lowcock, Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Ms. Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Mr. Filippo Grandi, High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organization (WHO). They said, “Amid a worsening humanitarian situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, reports of indiscriminate and targeted attacks against civilians, including rape and other horrific forms of sexual violence, continue to surface. This must stop. We call on all State and non-State parties to the conflict to fulfil their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law; ensure their forces respect and protect civilian populations, particularly women and children, from all human rights abuses; explicitly condemn all sexual violence; and take action to bring perpetrators to justice where abuses do occur. “[45]


With 70 per cent of health facilities looted, they said only one provided the full range of services for clinical management of rape survivors. Emergency contraception was fully available in less than half of the facilities assessed. An independent investigation into conflict-related sexual violence in Tigray was essential, with the involvement of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. They concluded, “It is only with a concerted and comprehensive effort, fully grounded in respect for human rights and international humanitarian law, that the humanitarian response in Tigray will match the scale of humanitarian need, especially for women and children.”


Another unprecedented statement came on 2 April 2 from the G7 foreign Ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States of America and the High Representative of the European Union. They expressed their grave concern about human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law in Tigray.[46] “We condemn the killing of civilians, sexual and gender-based violence, indiscriminate shelling and the forced displacement of residents of Tigray and Eritrean refugees. All parties must exercise utmost restraint, ensure the protection of civilians and respect human rights and international law.”

Finally on 22 April came the UN Security Council’s first – belated – statement on Tigray.[47]  Earlier attempts to reach a consensus on Tigray had been blocked by China, India and Russia. The statement, drafted by Ireland, came a week after UN aid chief Sir Mark Lowcock briefed the council that the humanitarian situation in Tigray had deteriorated, with people dying of hunger and reports of “gang rape, with multiple men assaulting the victim” sometimes over a period of days, and girls as young as eight being targeted.[48]


The Security Council praised the Ethiopian Government for its efforts to increase humanitarian access. It also welcomed the joint investigation by the OHCHR and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission into alleged human rights violations and abuses. However, it also said, “The members of the Security Council expressed their deep concern about allegations of human rights violations and abuses, including reports of sexual violence against women and girls in the Tigray region and called for investigations to find those responsible and bring them to justice…“The members of the Security Council stressed the need for full compliance with international law.” This was a statement, not a resolution, and was not accompanied by any monitoring or enforcement measures.


The international community gave more attention to Tigray in the run-up to the G7 summit in June in Cornwall, UK. On 10 June 2021, on the eve of the summit the USA and EU held a joint high-level roundtable chaired by Nima Elbagir, the CNN journalist who did much to bring the sexual violence in Tigray to the world’s attention. [49] Pramila Patten, one of the roundtable panelists, said women’s bodies were being used as a battleground in the conflict, and said the world did not need to wait for a full investigation before taking action over the sexual violence. [50] She said that service providers in Tigray were reporting increased demand for emergency contraception, abortion services, HIV-related services and counselling, all indicative of sexual violence, and said that UNFPA anticipated 22,500 would need such services. In “Their Own Words,” an e-book she was publishing on 17 June 2021, there were reports of a 45-year-old woman gang-raped in Tigray by 16 Eritrean soldiers, and a 32-year-old woman gang-raped in the region on the same day, also by 14 Eritreans. She welcomed the joint investigation by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and UNHCR, which she said had sexual violence as one of its priority areas. She also welcomed prosecutions by the Ethiopian Attorney-General of Ethiopian soldiers. She said she was working with the Ethiopian Minister for Women, Children and Youth Affairs to develop a comprehensive prevention and response strategy. It would need, she said, “political commitment at the highest level” and called on the G7 to assist in delivering this by making the tackling of sexual violence one of the outcomes of its discussions on Tigray.


9.7 The Ethiopian Government’s response


Initially the Ethiopian government’s response was one of denial; that the Eritreans were in Ethiopia at all, that the reports of rape were anything other than falsehoods put about by their opponents, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. However, in the face of mounting criticism, it has had to backtrack.


The Ethiopian Government first acknowledged the existence, if not the extent of the sexual violence committed by its troops in February 2021. A statement that rapes had happened came from Ethiopia’s Minister of Women, Ms Filsan Abdullahi[51] who said, “We have received the report back from our Taskforce team on the ground in the Tigray region, they have unfortunately established rape has taken place conclusively and without a doubt. “She said the task force was still processing data to establish the number of victims, and that the government was “strengthening the protection and prevention of gender-based violence against women in the Tigray region.”


In its report cited above, the International Rescue Committee found that there are now fewer social sanctions against the continuing gender-based violence generally in Tigray, limited opportunities for prosecutions and more taboos around women speaking about the attacks on them.


Ethiopian prime Minister Abiy Ahmed conceded in a speech in parliament on 23 March that Eritrean troops were in Ethiopia and that they “may” have been involved in rapes. He also implied that these actions were collateral damage of war.  The concession came in the wake of the statement by UN agency chiefs.  On 1 April, ahead of the G7 statement, he confirmed that rape had taken place, appearing to implicate his own forces, and pledged that, “Anyone who raped our Tigrayan sisters, anybody who is involved in looting, will be held accountable in a court of law.”[52]


More recently the top public health official in the new government-appointed administration in Tigray, Dr Fasika Amdeselassie, has said that women in Tigray were being kept in “sexual slavery” – some for days or weeks at a time.[53] “The perpetrators have to be investigated,” she said.


Shortly before the G7, on 3 June, and in the face of mounting concern about the sexual violence in the conflict, the Ethiopian Government held a news conference that dealt specifically with the allegations about the brutality in Tigray.[54] Attorney-General Gedion Timothewos attributed the killings and sexual violence against civilians to some “bad apples” among the soldiers who had broken the rules of engagement which had been issued to them in a pocketbook. Pressed on the numbers involved, he said there were reports of several hundred sexual assaults reported by the regional authorities. Military authorities had indicated about 30 soldiers were responsible for these. Twenty-five soldiers had been charged by military prosecutors, and four had been convicted. However, he said that there were “exaggerations” and “disinformation” on the subject, and some of the reports should be taken with “a pinch of salt.” Such language goes to the heart of what Pramila Paten described as “A deep-rooted culture of denial of sexual violence.”[55] The Attorney General did not say what was happening about prosecutions of Eritrean soldiers accused of sexual violence.


9.8 Conclusion – meaningless paper or justice for Tigrayan women?


While the rhetoric has ramped up, the estimated 26,000 Tigrayan women who have survived rape are still waiting for justice. Helen Clark, former New Zealand Prime Minister and head of the UN’s Development Programme has pointed out that to be of any worth, UN resolutions must be backed by action. Writing for Foreign Policy with Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy,[56] she says: “It takes courage for any woman to speak about her experience of rape. In a conservative society such as Ethiopia’s, it takes special bravery for a woman to share the most intimate and agonizingly raw details about her ordeal. Every journalist or humanitarian worker who has interviewed these survivors says that the reported cases are only a fraction of the true number.


“The world knows enough to say that war crimes are happening in Tigray. We should not need to wait until we are able to conduct full and thorough investigations before we act to stop rape as a weapon of war. We should not have to count the graves of children before we act to stop starvation crimes. (UN) Resolutions … are meaningless pieces of paper unless the world acts on their solemn commitments.”


As yet, the jury on that is still out.


[1] Former Labour MP for Northampton North and a Minister in the Department for International Development


[3] Violence has become a weapon of war by Helen Clark and Rachel Kyte, Foreign Policy April 27th 2021

[4] “Ethiopian Orthodox Church Patriarch blasts Tigray ‘genocide’” by Cara Anna, Associated Press carried by Eritrea Hub, May 8th 2021

[5]“ Foreign Secretary announced UK initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict” News release issues by Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London, May 29th 2012.

[6]  Tigrai Media House | Facebook

[7] Ethiopia: Persistent, credible reports of grave human rights violations in Tigray underscore the urgent need for human rights access – Bachelet;  United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Geneva, March 4th 2021

[8] “Choose, I kill you or rape you,” abuse accusations surge in Ethiopia’s war, Reuters, January 25th, 2021

[9] Situation Report EEPA Horn No 95 02 March 2021, Europe External Programme with Africa, Brussels, March 2021

[10] “I don’t feel safe: survivors allege rape by soldiers in Tigray, Agence France Presse March 9th 2021

[11] Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis: I lost my hand when a soldier tried to rape me, BBC News February 15th 2021

[12] Images circulating on social media and later carried under “Health official alleges sexual slavery in Tigray, Reuters, April 15th 2021

[13] Sexual Violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region, Insecurity Insight, March 30th 2021

Click to access Briefing-Gender-Based-Violence-in-Tigray-8-March-EEPA-Horn-No.-3-08-march-2021FIN.pdf

[14] “Tigray Gender Analysis Key Findings” International Rescue Committee, New York, May 4th 2021

[15] “Practically this has been a genocide,” CNN March 22nd, 2021

[16] Channel 4 News March 19th 2021

[17] eNCA news March 27th, 2021

[18] SABC News, March 26th, 2021

[19] Tigray: Ethiopian Human Rights Commission confirms 108 rape cases, Borkena, February 11th 2021

[20] Both these figures were reported in “Gender Based Violence in Tigray” 8th  Mach 2021 Special Briefing No 3 Situation Report EEPA Horn Europe External Programme with Africa, Brussels, March 2021

[21] Men forced to rape family members in Ethiopia’s Tigray, UN says, Reuters, March 26th 2021

[22] US – EU roundtable recording U.S.-EU High-Level Roundtable on the humanitarian emergency in Tigray June 10/21 with Nima Elbagir – YouTube

[23] Ethiopia – Monday 14 June 2021 – Hansard – UK Parliament

[24] Situation Report EEPA Horn No 73 01 February 2021, Europe External Programme with Africa, Brussels, February 2021

[25] “’Leave no Tigrayan:’ In Ethiopia an ethnicity is erased.” By Cara Anna, Associated Press, April 7th 2021

[26] Red Cross condemns ‘horrific’ sexual violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray, Barrons  April 22nd 2021

[27] International Protocol on the Investigation and Documentation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, First Edition, 2014, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London pages 23 – 25

[28] “’A Tigray womb should never give birth:’ Rape in Tigray” by Lucy Kassa, AlJazeera, April 21st 2021

[29] The unenviable situation of Tigreans in Ethiopia,” by Blog Editor, London School of Economics, March 28th 2018

[30] “The genocidal war on Tigray: An opinion piece by Prof Dr Kjetil Tronvoll”  Feb 28th 2021, Tigray Human Rights and Humanitarian Situation

[31] “Practically this has been a genocide,” CNN report April 22nd 2021

[32] Resolution 1325, United Nations Security Council, New York, October 31st 2000

[33] Resolution 1820, United Nations Security Council, New York, June 19th 2008

[34] United Nations Geneva, Multi-media newsroom, Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, News conference December 9th 2020

[35] “We need humanitarian access to Tigray as urgent first step towards peace in Ethiopia” blog post by Josep Borrell January 15th 2021 European Union External Action Service website

[36] United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary General for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms Pramila Patten urges all parties to prohibit the use of sexual violence and cease hostilities in the  Tigray region of Ethiopia, Press Statement, UN, New York, 21st January 2021

[37] Security Council Press Statement on Ethiopia  UN, New York, 23rd April 2021

[38] “Justice will not be served by a joint Ethiopian/UN inquiry into Tigray atrocities,” Ethiopian News  by Getachew Gebrekiros Temare April 12th  2021

[39]  US Department of State, Office of the Spokesperson, “Atrocities in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region,” Press Statement, Anthony J Blinken, Secretary of State,  February 27th, 2021

[40] International Protocol on the Investigation and Documentation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, First Edition, 2014, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London

[41] International Protocol on the Investigation and Documentation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, Second Edition, 2017, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London

[42] UK launches landmark draft Murad Code to support survivors of conflict-related sexual violence as Covid pandemic increases suffering, press release issued by Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London June19th 2020

[43] Conflict in Tigray Region of Ethiopia, Hansard, Volume 691 debated on March 25th 2021, UK Parliament, London, March 25th 2021

[44] International Development Committee Oral evidence: Humanitarian crises monitoring: Ethiopia’s Tigray region, HC 1289 Thursday 18 March 2021

[45] Statement on Gender-Based Violence in Tigray region of Ethiopia (New York/Geneva/Washington D.C., 22 March 2021) published by ReliefWeb

[46] A statement from the Foreign Ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the USA and the High Representative of the EU. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, London April 2nd, 2021

[47] Security Council Press Statement on Ethiopia  UN, New York, 23rd April 2021

[48] “Sexual violence being used as a weapon of war in Tigray, UN says,” Reuters, April 16th 2021

[49] U.S.-EU High-Level Roundtable on the humanitarian emergency in Tigray | European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (

[50] US – EU roundtable recording U.S.-EU High-Level Roundtable on the humanitarian emergency in Tigray June 10/21 with Nima Elbagir – YouTube

[51] Ethiopia confirms widespread rape in conflict hit north, Reuters, February 12th 2021

[52] CNN report  March 23rd 2021

[53] Mass rape used as weapon six months into war in Ethiopia’s Tigray, Irish Times, Dublin, May 4th 2021

[54] Tigray Region Press Briefing Update by Dr Gedion Timothewos and Billene Seyoum. – YouTube

[55] US – EU roundtable recording U.S.-EU High-Level Roundtable on the humanitarian emergency in Tigray June 10/21 with Nima Elbagir – YouTube

[56] Violence has become a weapon of war by Helen Clark and Rachel Kyte, Foreign Policy April 27th 2021

One comment

  1. Well researched and compiled. Unfortunately the IC is not taking this crime seriously . What Africa had learned about the IC role in Ruwanda may again be repeated in Tigray.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.