In the early hours of November 4, 2020, the armed wing of the former ruling party of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), attacked several federal military bases across Tigray including the military’s Northern Command headquarters in the capital Mekelle and killed or captured and detained soldiers and raided several armories.1Reuters, “Inside a military base in Ethiopia’s Tigray: Soldiers decry betrayal by former comrades,” Reuters, December 17, 2020. Prior to this attack, tensions had been simmering between the federal government and TPFL because of disagreements over power sharing. After Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed postponed the general elections that were due in September (thereby extending his tenure in office) because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the strained relationship further degenerated. The TPLF accused Ahmed of contravening the constitutional term limits, and in defiance of his directive, went ahead with their own regional polls. But the federal government refused to recognize the new executive in Tigray, terming it unconstitutional and illegal.2International Crisis Group, “Finding a path to peace in Ethiopia’s Tigray region,”International Crisis Group, Briefing No. 167 (February 11, 2021).

The former TPLF leaders have claimed that they attacked the federal military bases in Tigray in anticipation of a federal attack against them.3Ibid. It is unclear if the government had indeed been planning such an attack. After the TPLF insurgency, the Ethiopian Prime Minister ordered a military offensive in Tigray to stop the TPLF siege on the Northern Command and the other bases. While this operation —backed by the Amhara regional forces and the Eritrean army—has succeeded in ousting the TPLF leadership,4International Crisis Group, “Ethiopia’s Tigray war: A deadly, dangerous stalemate,” International Crisis Group, Briefing No. 171 (April 2, 2021). the conflict between the two warring sides has left a trail of death and destruction. Many Trigrayans have had to flee their homes and are now living as internally displaced persons (IDPs) or as refugees in neighboring Sudan.5John Hursh, “Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis: Escalating violence and mass displacement threaten Ethiopian and regional security,” Just Security, November 25, 2020.

The war between the Ethiopian government and TPLF has led to an increase in sexual and gender-based violence in Tigray. In recent months, there have been many reports of sexual violence being meted out against women and girls in the region. Journalists, aid workers, and researchers covering the Ethiopian crisis have issued reports accusing some Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers fighting against the TPLF of using rape as a weapon of war against Tigrigna women and girls.6Helen Clark and Rachel Kyte, “In Tigray, sexual violence has become a weapon of war,” Foreign Policy, April 27, 2021. As has been the trend in wars in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere around the world, women’s bodies have again become a battleground. In this war, where the Ethiopian federal government—backed by its allies—is fighting the now ousted TPLF leadership, women continue to endure the brunt of this conflict. Women and girls escaping the conflict in Tigray are telling harrowing stories of being tortured and sexually violated by troops allied to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government. Some of the women and girls arriving at the Hamdayet refugee camp in neighboring Sudan have reported that they were subjected to torture and horrendous forms of sexual violence by soldiers and militia.7Bethlehem Feleke, et al., “’Practically this has been a genocide’,” CNN, March 22, 2021.

In a report by Al Jazeera, a 34-year-old mother of three described being sexually assaulted by four Amhara militia men while fleeing the conflict in her hometown of Humera in western Tigray. After the assault, the attackers left the woman unconscious. She had to be taken to a health facility by her younger brother and some good Samaritans. In an interview with reporters, the woman recalled the attackers telling her that, “a Tigrayan womb should never give birth.” A doctor who attended to the victim says she is now infertile because of the injuries that were inflicted upon her.8Lucy Kassa, L, “‘A Tigray womb should never give birth’: Rape in Tigray,” Aljazeera, April 21, 2021. In another report by The Star,9The Star, “‘Raped by 23 soldiers’: Ethiopian woman sheds lights on sexual violence in Tigray conflict,” YouTube, April 19, 2021. a 27-year-old woman recounted that she was gang-raped for 11 days by 23 Eritrean soldiers after being taken off the minibus she was traveling on. In the same report, a government-appointed public health official indicated that at least 829 female cases of sexual assault have been reported at five medical facilities in Tigray.10Ibid. There is likelihood that many other cases are unreported because of social stigma and women’s limited access to health facilities.

The systematic use of sexual violence by actors in the Tigray conflict is arguably a deliberate strategy to humiliate, shame, and terrorize not just the women and girls, but also, the entire Tigrigna community. Indeed, one could make the case that rape is being used alongside other [war] tactics to ethnically cleanse Tigray. Many have fled conflict-ridden areas of Tigray because of the heinous abuses, massacres, and pillaging going on in the region.11Zecharias Zelalem and Will Brown, “Eritrea’s brutal shadow war in Ethiopia laid bare,” The Telegraph, January 8, 2021, Some of the refugees arriving in Sudan from Tigray have reported that they were forced by Amhara regional forces [who have taken over western Tigray] to renounce their Tigray identity and embrace the Amharic one by taking Amhara ID cards. Some women said they were told they would be sexually assaulted again if they claimed to be Tigray.12Associated Press, “‘This is genocide’: Ethiopia attempts to erase Tigrayan ethnicity,” Daily Sabah, April 7, 2021. Some commentators have gone as far as arguing that there is a systematic attempt by Amhara forces to commit genocide against Tigrayans. The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide has defined genocide as the any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such:

a) killing members of the group;
b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Within the context of the foregoing definition of the term ‘genocide’, we can argue then that the sexual violence being meted out on women and girls in Tigray qualifies as “genocidal rape” given that some of the survivors of this violence have suffered severe injuries leading to infertility. It can also be posited that the injuries were inflicted intentionally to stop victims from reproducing future generations. In other instances, women have reported that those who raped them told them that they wanted to “cleanse” the women of their Tigray identity.13See Feleke et al. There are also reports that many women are seeking abortion services and emergency contraception after being sexually violated by fighters, some of who claimed to be HIV positive.14Lucy Kassa and Anna Pujol-Mazzini, “‘We’re here to make you HIV positive’: Hundreds of women rush to Tigray hospitals as soldiers use rape as weapon of war,” The Telegraph, March 27, 2021. Given the limited health facilities that are currently available in Tigray, it is very likely that most of the victims of sexual assault may not be able to access these services, which means that they may end up bearing children of the men that raped them. In such cases, giving birth to children conceived under such circumstances would have served one purpose — creating a new generation of non-Tigrigna children of the occupying forces. Rape with intent to enforce impregnation has been used in many conflicts around the world as an act of genocide. This tactic was used by Serbian soldiers against Bosnian women during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.15Siobhan K. Fisher, “Occupation of the womb: Forced impregnation as genocide,” Duke Law Journal, 46 (1996): 91-133. It was also used against Tutsi women by the Interahamwe militia who committed genocide in Rwanda in 1994.16Lisa Sharlach, “Rape as genocide: Bangladesh, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda,” New Political Science, 22 (2000): 89-102.

Considering the reports of serious atrocities being committed in Tigray, it is important that the UN Security Council continues to put pressure on the government of Ethiopia and its allied forces to halt the fighting in the region. Last month, the UN Security Council issued a statement expressing “deep concern” over the situation in Tigray and urged the government of Ethiopia to provide unfettered humanitarian access to all those in need and to investigate allegations of sexual violence.17United Nations, “Security, Council Press Statement on Ethiopia,” April 22, 2021. These recommendations are welcome but, more needs to be done to stop the suffering of women and girls in Tigray. The fact that conflict in the Tigray region is ongoing means that women remain caught in its cross hairs. The Ethiopian federal government and its allies should be urged to give dialogue a chance. Furthermore, it is important that those found culpable of having engaged in committing acts of sexual violence against women and girls in Tigray are prosecuted in accordance with international and domestic law.