Eritrea: Not the country we struggled forPosted: 1 April, 2015
Author: Yulia Prystash
Student (LLM Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa), Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria
International Women’s Day – 8 March 2015
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)’s Working Group on the Issue of Discrimination against Women in Law and in Practice has applauded the extensive legal guarantee of women’s rights and equality across the globe. In its statement on International Women’s Day, the UNHRC indicated however, that this legal guarantee of equality has not translated into reality due to persistent discrimination against women and retrogression from these norms. Eritrea is an example of a country that has not fully translated the legal guarantees on women’s rights to equality into reality. Lack of implementation of laws, religion, tradition, regressive and patriarchal culture as well as the rhetoric of nationalism (“no war – no peace”) continue to hinder the realisation of gender equality in Eritrea.
We use real life stories of Eritrean women to illustrate the current state of women’s rights in Eritrea, particularly in light of the concluding observations of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) during its 60th Session held February 16 – March 6 2015.
1. The right to education of Eritrean women and girls
I am the only child in my family. I left school early to help my mother and always hid from police who would force me to join the national service. In 2011 I left Eritrea for Sudan, I walked for 4 days and on arrival, a group of Eritrean boys held me hostage for 2 months; drugged and shackled. I finally escaped to Khartoum where I cleaned, washed and ironed to earn a living. I wish to return to Eritrea, but I know that my parents are still in prison- unable to pay a fine and punished for my escape – TSEGA.
After completing grade 11, children are required to enroll at Sawa Military Training Centre to first undergo 3 months of compulsory military training in order to finish their studies. To avoid attending such training and subsequently being conscripted into the national service many girls drop out, marry, fall pregnant or leave the country. This shows that making compulsory military training a pre-condition to attaining education has adversely affected the realisation of the right to education for many Eritrean women and is contributing to their disempowerment in society. In addition, although Eritrea has acceded to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and provides domestically that the minimum age of recruitment is 18 years old, in reality underage recruitment persists. Between August 2007 and February 2008 the Sawa military camp housed 1599 underage female soldiers and there has been no indication that these figures have decreased.
Eritrea’s 5th state report to the Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) indicates that the enrolment and promotion rates of female students have been consistently higher than their male counterparts; the net enrolment ratio of females at the secondary level of education grew from 13.4% in 2008/09 to 22.4% in 2010/11. However, the CEDAW Committee notes that current enrolment and completion rates are still low and the poor access to schools in rural areas coupled with negative cultural attitudes towards girls attending school contribute to the further violation of their right to education. Thus, conditioning education to participation in military training has resulted in the right to education of numerous Eritrean women being compromised.
2. The right to liberty and security of the person: Violence against women in detention
I was arrested after they learnt I was approached by a man who offered to help me escape Eritrea. They detained me at the Mai-Srwa detention center, in a metal container with 8 other women. The food was terrible, we weren’t allowed any visitors and they interrogated us at random times about the same questions. In Eritrea, the authorities don’t need to file charges against you to arrest and detain you. Luckily, a friend managed to secure my release, but I had to leave my country. No authority in Eritrea can protect me – AWATIF ABDELA
The 2014 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea (Special Rapporteur) indicates that the imposition of indefinite national service is one of the leading push factors that cause people to flee the country. Women face the constant threat of being arrested and detained for being national service evaders or deserters. The CEDAW Committee acknowledged this threat and requested Eritrea to provide disaggregated data on the number of women held in detention. Eritrea merely responded that for “security reasons” such details cannot be made available. In response to concerns raised as to the conditions of women in detention, Eritrea stated that female prisoners have access to education, training, health services, safe drinking water and hygiene necessities. In stark contrast, the Special Rapporteur describes conditions that are synonymous with the experiences of Abdela. Detainees are held in underground prisons in overcrowded metal containers and extreme weather conditions. Sanitation and food provision is very poor, and torture and ill-treatment is prevalent.
The concluding observations of the CEDAW Committee condemn the risk of sexual violence that women in detention are exposed to at the hands of predominantly male prison wardens. The CEDAW Committee suggested that more female wardens should be appointed and a gender-sensitive complaints mechanism should be put in place in order to combat this. The current justification for and state of detained women in Eritrea not only violates their right to freedom and security but also poses a threat to their rights to life, health and dignity.
The above stories indicate the need for Eritrea to address the disjuncture between adopting laws that are compliant with international human rights standards and actually implementing these standards. It is only through this that the inherent dignity of Eritrean women can be respected and the equal and free country that they fought for realised.
 The Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa ‘Letters from Eritrea: Refugee women tell their story’ (2013) http://sihanet.org/sites/default/files/resource-download/letters%20from%20eritrea_web.pdf (accessed 06 March 2015).
About the Authors:
Khuraisha Patel, Yulia Prystash and Hibo Mahad are LLM students on the Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa programme, which is presented by the Centre for Human Rights at the Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria.