Blog Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration Violence & Abuse

War and rape in Northern Ethiopia: A dialogue about healing and justice

Written by Lawson Sadler, JD, WUSTL School of Law, Student Advisory Council member for the Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration at the Institute for Public Health

Event speakers from left to right: Dr. Hayelom Kebede Mekonen, Prof. Erin Farrell Rosenberg, Prof. Kim Thuy Seelinger, Dr. L. Lewis Wall. Not Pictured: Hon. Filsan Abdellahi Abdi

The Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration recently hosted an event “War and Rape in Northern Ethiopia: A Dialogue About Healing and Justice” at Washington University in St. Louis with practitioners and experts on the forefront of response to the conflict. This discussion focused on the atrocities committed in northern Ethiopia during the recent regional war with a view to advancing healing and the fight to obtain justice for its victims.

Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration Director, Kim Thuy Seelinger, JD, welcomed guests and introduced the speakers. Bringing together practitioners and researchers, this event centered on gender-based violence in the recent armed conflict in Ethiopia, and the path forward to transitional justice and healing.

Honorable Filsan Abdellahi Abdi, former Minister for Women, Children, and Youth of Ethiopia, joined via Zoom. Seelinger gave her the floor to share her observations about the conflict. Abdi described the conflict as “one of identity, one of division, one of power struggles between ethnic groups.” Abdi was the first Minister to arrive on the ground in Northern Ethiopia to confirm rumors of systemic sexual violence being perpetrated against civilians. Abdi witnessed evidence of “brutal rape, a rape that was systematic,” and established a task force between Ministries to investigate and confirm the occurrence of sexual violence in the Tigray region, as well as in neighboring areas.

Abdi later resigned from her post after it became clear that the report would not be published by the Ethiopian state. She described her frustration with “being muted” by government and her decision to resign as a matter of “her conscience.” Abdi continues to work for accountability and healing for survivors and believes that transitional justice in Northern Ethiopia should be focused on the needs and voices of survivors of sexual violence. Abdi concluded her comments with a call to young people to put “humanity at the core of all work we do.”

Seelinger then welcomed the other speakers to share their experiences and expertise.

Hayelom Kebede Mekonen, PhD spoke about his experience in Tigray during the conflict while serving as the head of Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital. When the conflict broke out on November 3, 2020, Mekonen said everything turned “upside-down” overnight. Quickly, Ayder Hospital began receiving civilian women and girls who had been gang raped, forced into sexual slavery, and abduction by military and militia personnel. 

In a context where 70-80% of the health infrastructure was destroyed during the conflict, Ayder Hospital served thousands of women and girls, from ages 6-80, who had been targeted in “very calculated” sexual violence as a weapon of war. “This sexual violence was systematic” in Mekonen’s view. In addition to providing medical care, Ayder Hospital arranged safe houses for survivors because of the “high stigma” they faced in their communities. Even medical students moving between their dorms and hospitals were abducted. Mekonen described the brutality of the sexual violence in the conflict as “beyond comprehension” and said “justice has to be served” for survivors, though “the healing will take a century.”

Moderator L. Lewis Wall, DPhil, MD, Professor Emeritus of Sociocultural Anthropology and of Obstetrics and Gynecology (School of Medicine), spoke about his partnership in Northern Ethiopia for the past 12 years. Wall commented that the “scope of the humanitarian crisis dwarfs Ukraine,” though the international community has yet to give their full attention to the Tigray War. Wall noted his admiration for leaders in Northern Ethiopia who continue to seek justice and accountability for the “genocidal campaign.”

Professors Erin Farrell Rosenberg and Seelinger spoke about their research on conflict-related sexual violence in Ethiopia, commissioned by the United Kingdom. Professors Rosenberg and Seelinger have since presented their findings to both the United Kingdom and United States governments. Rosenberg described the systematic sexual violence in the conflict as “a tactic used to terrorize the Tigrayan civilian population as a whole.” They found that by the end of the conflict in November 2022, only one percent of health care facilities in the region were fully operational. Seelinger noted that “administrative blockages” like telecommunications and banking exacerbated the humanitarian crisis by impeding the distribution of aid and supplies.

Guests offered their own questions to the speakers about the conflict and the path towards healing. Faced with decades of healing ahead, the speakers offered their views. Mekonen expects that effective healing will take at least three generations and have to occur across the country, not just in Northern Ethiopia. “The healing must be started by justice and accountability” for survivors. Prof. Rosenberg similarly focused on the four pillars of transitional justice – truth, justice, reparations, non-recurrence – and said that transitional justice must extend “beyond a trial or court.” Wall highlighted community-centered approaches to healing and building “extra support systems” for survivors through training religious community members to reduce social stigma against survivors of sexual violence.

The event concluded by sharing a meal of Ethiopian food, catered by Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant, and reflection on the experiences generously shared by the speakers.