News Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration Sexual Health

Center collaborates with Mukwege Foundation and WashU researchers to release report: “Understanding conflict-related sexual violence in Ethiopia”

Written by Kim Furlow, communications manager for the Institute for Public Health

In partnership with the Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation, an international human rights organization, the Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration at WashU’s Institute for Public Health has recently released a study on sexual violence related to the current armed conflict in northern Ethiopia. Funded by the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office, the report, “Understanding conflict-related sexual violence in Ethiopia” is the only analysis of the sexual violence committed, since the current conflict began.

It is our hope that this report will be taken up by key states and ultimately help end the humanitarian blockade – if not the conflict itself.

Kim Thuy Seelinger, JD, director, Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration at the
Institute for Public Health

Violence broke out in northern Ethiopia in November 2020. The current conflict in the northern part of the country between Ethiopian federal forces and allied groups on one hand, and Tigrayan defense forces on the other, continues. In nearly two years, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have been displaced, with potentially tens of thousands killed. According to the report, fighting has destroyed a once dynamic health care system and a harsh blockade prevents desperately needed humanitarian aid from reaching the Tigray region.

Sexual violence has been a key feature of this conflict. The study addressed four key questions:   

  • Who is perpetrating conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) in northern Ethiopia?
  • How is CRSV being used and by which armed groups?
  • Who is being targeted (e.g., ethnic identities, displaced populations, certain ages, detainees)?
  • What services are available to CRSV survivors, and how accessible are they?

Along with colleagues from the Mukwege Foundation, the study was a transdisciplinary collaboration between students from WashU’s Brown School and School of Law, and external experts from the U.S. and Ethiopia. While Seelinger had intended to engage local Ethiopian researchers in conducting interviews and gathering hospital data across northern Ethiopia, the escalating conflict posed too many security risks. Ultimately, the team took a safer approach, relying on open source data and more limited key informant interviews. Researchers collected data from February through May 2022, focusing on events from November 2020 through May 2022.

The final report highlights the most commonly referenced forms and scenarios of CRSV, including its use to humiliate, torture and displace victims, as well as the forced witness of CRSV by victims’ family members – even their very young children. The report also examines CRSV-relevant impacts on individuals and health care infrastructures in northern Ethiopia.

After its analysis, the report offers political, operational and research-related recommendations to address the impacts of CRSV in the region, provide support to victims, and address future accountability and transitional justice efforts.

In October, Seelinger and research team members presented their study findings at a U.N. Human Rights Council side event, as well as in closed-door briefings to key members in the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Senate. Seelinger also presented the study to the United States Institute for Peace. Research team members have been invited to brief members of the United Kingdom Parliament before year’s end.