On June 22, 2021, the Ethiopian Air Force conducted an aerial bombardment of a busy marketplace in the village of Togoga, in Tigray, Ethiopia, causing the deaths of at least 64 people and injuring 180 others.1Jason Burke, “Scores Killed in Ethiopian Airstrike on Tigray Market,” The Guardian, June 24, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/24/ethiopian-airstrike-tigray-market. Although Ethiopian military sources claimed that the victims were combatants, health-care workers and local residents who witnessed the incident reported that the casualties were mostly civilians and included women and children.2Ibid. On the day of the attack, Tigrayans were commemorating martyrs who lost their lives on June 22, 1988, when forces loyal to Mengistu Haile Mariam’s dictatorial regime killed 2,500 civilians in a market air raid on the town of Hawzen in Tigray.3Human Rights Watch, Ethiopia: Reckoning Under the Law, 1994, https://www.hrw.org/report/1994/12/01/ethiopia-reckoning-under-law. The June bombing raid followed eight months of fighting between Ethiopian federal forces (supported by Amhara regional forces and the Eritrean army) and the northern Tigray region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF),4The TPLF has been designated as a terrorist group by the Ethiopian government. The former leaders of TPLF and the Tigray Regional Special Forces and militia have now formed an armed resistance group known as the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF). over power-sharing and governance issues.5For more details of the genesis of this conflict, see Ineke Mules, “Ethiopia: A Timeline of the Crisis,” Deutsche Welle, November 17, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/ethiopia-a-timeline-of-the-tigray-crisis/a-55632181.

The bombing of Togoga was just one among a series of violent attacks that people in Tigray have contended with in the past several months of fighting in which women and children have been caught in the crosshairs.6Human Rights Watch, “Ethiopia: Eritrean Forces Massacre Tigray Civilians,” March 5, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/03/05/ethiopia-eritrean-forces-massacre-tigray-civilians. The threat that war poses to women and children is well documented in the scientific literature. For example, in a recent study, Wagner and others demonstrated that African women’s proximity to conflict zones increases both their risk of dying and children’s probability of becoming orphaned.7Wagner, Z., Sam Heft-Neal, Paul H. Wise, Robert E. Black, Marshall Burke, Ties Boerma, Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, and Eran Bendavid, “Women and Children Living in Areas of Armed Conflict in Africa: A Geospatial Analysis of Mortality and Orphanhood,” Lancet Global Health 7, no. 12 (2019): e1622–31, https://doi.org/10.1016/S2214-109X(19)30407-3. In another study, the same authors found empirical evidence that armed conflict in Africa increases infant mortality substantially. Such deaths may result from injuries children suffer during active combat or as a result of harm to parents or the destruction of homes, thereby indirectly compromising children’s safety. They also found that a plethora of other factors indirectly related to conflict, such as complications during labor and delivery, nutritional deficiencies, and infectious diseases, may affect women’s and children’s health and lead to death in the long run.8Zachary Wagner, Sam Heft-Neal, Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, Robert E. Black, Marshall Burke, and Eran Bendavid, “Armed Conflict and Child Mortality in Africa: A Geospatial Analysis,” Lancet 392, no. 10150 (2018): 857–65. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31437-5.

It is not surprising then that women along with children have increasingly become casualties in the Tigray conflict.9Human Rights Watch, “Ethiopia: Unlawful Shelling of Tigray Urban Areas,” February 11, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/11/ethiopia-unlawful-shelling-tigray-urban-areas/. In addition to indiscriminate shelling and gunfire, women have also been subjected to rape and other forms of sexual assault at the hands of soldiers and militia.10Katherine Houreld, “Health Official Alleges ‘Sexual Slavery’ in Tigray,” Reuters, April 15, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/special-report-health-official-alleges-sexual-slavery-tigray-women-blame-2021-04-15/. In some cases, the violence against women occurred in the presence of their young children, making it impossible for mothers to protect these children from being harmed by perpetrators.11Lynsey Addario and Rachel Hartigan, “A Grave Humanitarian Crisis Is Unfolding in Ethiopia: ‘I Never Saw Hell Before, but Now I Have,’” National Geographic, May 28, 2021, www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/history-and-civilisation/2021/06/a-grave-humanitarian-crisis-is-unfolding-in-ethiopia-i-never-saw-hell-before-but-now-i-have/amp. While the exact number of those who have been sexually violated is unknown, reports of these attacks on women in Tigray have been pervasive. On June 10, during a joint US and EU high-level virtual meeting on the humanitarian emergency in Tigray, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence,  Pramila Patten reported that an estimated 22,500 women in Tigray were in need of medical care due to conflict-related sexual violence.12Sally Keeble, “Sexual Violence in the Tigray Conflict,” Eritrea Hub, July 12, 2021, https://eritreahub.org/sexual-violence-in-the-tigray-conflict-from-tigray-war-and-regional-implications#_ftn22. However, given that the ongoing conflict continues to hinder access to healthcare facilities, it is difficult to know the exact number of women that have been adversely affected. The UN projects that it may be many months down the line before the full magnitude of these atrocities is known.13Margaret Besheer, “It May Be ‘Many Months’ Before Full Scale of Tigray Rapes Known, UN Official Says,” Voice of America, April 22, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/africa/it-may-be-many-months-full-scale-tigray-rapes-known-un-official-says.

As is the case in many other conflicts around the world, the conflict in Tigray has forced many women along with their families to flee their homes. A significant number of women are now living in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees.14Charles Emptaz, “As Refugee Numbers Surge, Ethiopians Seek Word of Loved Ones,” UNHCR, November 26, 2020, https://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2020/11/5fbd2f024/refugee-numbers-surge-ethiopians-seek-word-loved-ones.html. And those that remain in their villages are contending with acute hunger due to conflict-induced famine. According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) Acute Food Security analysis conducted in Tigray and the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions between May and June, over 350,000 people are facing food insecurity in the highest category (Catastrophe phase) as a result of the ongoing conflict, which has led to the forced displacement of populations, restricted movement, destruction of livelihoods (including harvest and/or other assets), and limited access to humanitarian aid.15Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), “Ethiopia: IPC Acute Food Insecurity Analysis,” IPC Alert, July 2021, http://www.ipcinfo.org/ipcinfo-website/alerts-archive/issue-42/en/. These conditions have left women unable to feed themselves or their children, which, in turn, is contributing to severe acute child malnutrition and, in some cases, child mortality.16Rodney Muhumuza, “In Tigray, Food Is Often a Weapon of War as Famine Looms, ” AP News, June 11, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/only-on-ap-united-nations-africa-business-897bed43c6743c4575298ba5cf7bdd1c. This situation is of particular concern given that the mortality rate among children under five was quite high in this region even prior to the conflict.17Fikaden Berhe Hadgu, Letekirstos GebreEgziabher Gebretsadik, Hagos Gidey Mihretu, and Amanuel Hadgu Berhe, “Prevalence and Factors Associated with Neonatal Mortality at Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital, Northern Ethiopia: A Cross-sectional Study,” Pediatric Health, Medicine and Therapeutics, no. 11 (2020): 29–37.

In addition to concerns of child malnutrition, many Tigrayan women now must care for children who have been traumatized by the war while grappling with their own war-related trauma. According to UNICEF,  families residing in IDP camps in Tigray are reporting deep psychosocial distress as well as persistent and pervasive fear due to the conflict.18UNICEF, “Children in Tigray in Acute Need of Protection and Assistance,” February 12, 2021, https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/children-tigray-acute-need-protection-and-assistance. Psychological trauma in children can be difficult for mothers to deal with in a humanitarian context, given that such environments often lead to an increase in anxiety disorders (e.g., posttraumatic stress disorder and depression) in women/mothers.19Eran Bendavid, Ties Boerma, Nadia Akseer, Ana Langer, Espoir Bwenge Malembaka, Emelda A. Okiro, Paul H. Wise, Sam Heft-Neal, Robert E. Black, Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, and the BRANCH Consortium Steering Committee, “The Effects of Armed Conflict on the Health of Women and Children,” Lancet 397, no. 10273 (2021): 522–32. While the work of ‘mothering’ requires women to ensure the nourishment, safety, and survival of their children,20Sidney Callahan, “A Life of Mothering,” American Medical Association Journal of Ethics 15, no. 9 (2013): 798–800. warfare can disrupt women’s ability to enact this ethics of care. Some researchers found scientific evidence that chronic stress and trauma in mothers living in war zones increased children’s psychological problems, as mothers in these circumstances were less empathic and sensitive toward the plight of their children.21Jonathan Levy, Karen Yirmiya, Abraham Goldstein, and Ruth Feldman, “Chronic Trauma Impairs the Neural Basis of Empathy in Mothers: Relations to Parenting and Children’s Empathic Abilities,” Development Cognitive Neuroscience, 38, Article 100658, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcn.2019.100658. Because conflict increases psychological distress, mothers may not be able to provide optimal care for their children, and this can pose a risk to their children’s development and overall well-being. There is a very real chance that women in Tigray are grappling with how to show empathy and care to their children in the context of a violent conflict that has disrupted their everyday lives and left the wider Tigrigna society collectively traumatized.

Although the federal government of Ethiopia announced a unilateral humanitarian ceasefire at the end of June,22Fana Broadcasting Corporate, “Ethiopian Government’s Decision in Response to Proposal of Tigray Interim Administration,” June 28, 2021, https://www.fanabc.com/english/ethiopian-governments-decision-in-response-to-proposal-of-tigray-interim-administration/. and withdrew the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) from Tigray,23International Crisis Group, “As Ethiopian Troops Exit Tigray, Time to Focus on Relief,” July 9, 2021,  https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/ethiopia/ethiopian-troops-exit-tigray-time-focus-relief. fighting between Tigrayan soldiers and Amhara regional forces continued as TPLF tried to retake areas of Tigray that had been captured by Amhara regional forces and their allies.24Ayenet Mersie and Maggie Fick, “Ethiopia: Tigray Forces Push South as Amhara Militias Mobilise,” Reuters, July 13, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/un-rights-council-passes-resolution-calling-eritrean-troop-withdrawal-tigray-2021-07-13/. There are reports that the ENDF together with regional forces and militia from across the country have now joined in the fighting.25Reuters, “Tigray Rebels Say They Capture Main Town, Push South and West,” July 13, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/tigray-rebels-say-they-capture-main-town-push-south-west-2021-07-13/.

The ongoing conflict in Tigray poses a great risk to women and children, many of whom have already suffered a great deal. It is time African institutions with the mandate to promote peace, security, and human rights in the region took decisive action to ensure that the warring parties end this conflict and embrace peace. The announcement last month by the African Union’s Commission on Human and People’s Rights that it was commencing investigations into alleged violations of human rights in Tigray is welcome news.26African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, “Press Statement on the Official Launch of the Commission of Inquiry on the Tigray Region in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia,” African Union, press release, June 16, 2021, https://au.int/en/pressreleases/20210616/press-statement-official-launch-commission-inquiry-tigray-region-federal. These investigations should lead to justice for victims, including women and girls who have been subjected to sexual violence, starvation, and other forms of torture during the conflict. There is also a need for the African Union (AU) to leverage its long-standing diplomatic relations with Ethiopia to urgently broker a ceasefire in Tigray to stop the mass atrocities that are being committed by armed actors. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) could also intervene by dispatching a team of mediators to join in this effort. Such a move would demonstrate to Africans and the rest of the world that the AU and IGAD are committed to fulfilling their mandate of protecting and promoting human rights on the continent and in the subregion. As some areas of Tigray become accessible to humanitarian agencies, one of the urgent issues that aid workers must pay attention to is the mental health of mothers, women, and children. Intervention should include psychosocial support that targets both mother and child, enabling women to creatively build and sustain coping strategies to deal with their own war-related trauma while also engaging in positive and empathic parenting.     

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