Eritrean Women: Holding Up Half the Sky
Iconic picture on the left is of EPLF freedom fighter Lemlem in Afabet, Eritrea in 1988. (Credit: Jenny Mattews) - Photo on the right is of Lemlem in 2014. After helping achieve independence, Lemlem became a successful business woman in Eritrea. Read more of her story here.
Eritrean Women: Holding Up Half the Sky
Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion
Emerging from the activities of labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and across Europe, International Women’s Day (IWD) was first commemorated by the United Nations (UN) on March 8th during International Women’s Year in 1975. Around the world, IWD represents an important opportunity for individuals, communities, and countries to celebrate the progress, great achievements, and contributions of women, raise and confront difficult questions and challenges, build broad support for women’s rights, and work towards the full and equal participation of women within all areas of society. In Eritrea, a young, low-income, developing country located within the fractious Horn of Africa, IWD is celebrated as a national public holiday. Furthermore, it helps underscore how Eritrean women have long been key components of families, communities, and society, and that they are extremely vital to the country’s present and future.
The longest African independence war of the 1900s, and amongst the most destructive, Eritrea’s three decades long struggle was about far more than just political emancipation. Rather, it sought to usher in a complete and radical transformation of society. Accordingly, an important dimension of the struggle – giving special attention to egalitarian, popular democratic principles and ideals – was a particular focus on women's and gender-related issues. No longer would women be narrowly viewed as secondary, subordinate figures within society; instead, they would stand proudly as full equals to men.
Embodying the notion of equality through struggle, thousands of valiant Eritrean women joined the armed struggle, eventually comprising over 30% of its ranks. They served honorably, fought bravely, and sacrificed greatly alongside men in the labyrinth-like trenches, high in the rugged mountains, on the battlefields, and across the frontlines. Ultimately, Eritrean women would prove absolutely critical to the eventual achievement of independence. In a similar vein, since national independence, Eritrean women have been key drivers of the nation’s pursuit of national development and socio-economic progress.
In honor and recognition of Eritrean women’s monumental contribution to the liberation struggle, the country undertook several steps after independence to formally guarantee women’s equal standing in all sectors of society. It ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1995 and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights in 1999, and has worked diligently to implement the Beijing Platform for Action. Furthermore, Eritrea legally prohibited harmful, traditional practices, including female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), child marriage, bride price, kidnappings, and dowry.
As well, the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW), an organization first established in the 1970s and boasting hundreds of thousands of members, has actively coordinated, monitored, and implemented a broad array of programs, initiatives, and public campaigns. Importantly, NUEW’s work has substantively helped propel social transformation, develop a conducive environment for gender equality, support the empowerment of women, and encourage women’s equal participation in the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres.
Notably, attention to gender equality has also extended to the employment and economic sectors. Globally, women’s economic empowerment is increasingly recognized as a crucial factor in promoting gender equality. Economically strengthening women is not only a fundamental moral imperative, in terms of encouraging the realization of inherent, inalienable women’s and human rights, it also serves to stimulate and undergird economic growth and prosperity. A plethora of examples and case studies abound – from Bangladesh to Bolivia to South Korea and Kerala, amongst others – revealing that when families, governments, the business sector, communities, and societies invest in girls and women, and work to eliminate inequalities, developing countries are less likely to be plagued by destitution and poverty and they become better positioned to thrive within highly competitive global markets.
In Eritrea, National Labour and Land Reform Proclamations secure legal protection for women in employment, guarantee women equal opportunities and maternal protection benefits, and ensure that women are able to purchase, use, or inherit land without discrimination. Additionally, several national initiatives, such as the Macro Policy, the Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy Program, the National Saving and Loan Program, the National Gender Action Plan, and NUEW’s micro-credit programs were created to guarantee that women would be adequately supported with the requisite resources and vital technical training that would help them fulfill their potential.
The diverse efforts promoting equality, coupled with gradual – yet noticeable – societal cultural changes, have seen women integrated into many sectors of the economy, allowing them to play a vital role in the country’s development and progress. With the majority of the Eritrea’s population residing within rural and semi-rural areas, relying predominantly on agriculture, crop cultivation, and animal husbandry for income, it is notable that many Eritrean women now proudly own land. Women’s ownership also extends to business, where they retain control over 40% of all small and medium-sized enterprises. Moreover, women now constitute a large segment of the workforce, and they remain very active in the informal sector. While women have traditionally been concentrated in manufacturing, such as the garment, leather, and tobacco industries, through steady improvements and investment in education and human capital, and greater access to opportunity, they are gradually transitioning to high-skilled sectors.
Around the world, it has long been the rule that women are inferior, with little ability to contribute substantively to society. However, from the days of the long struggle and since independence, Eritrea’s resilient women have shattered such outdated, patriarchal rules and notions through their wholehearted participation, struggle, contributions, and sacrifice. Today, Eritrean women are active within all areas of society and they contribute in many diverse ways, ultimately playing a crucial role in the country’s socio-economic progress and overall development.
In Eritrea, an old, backwards proverb states that, “like there is no donkey with horns, there is no woman with brains.” Relegating such sentiments to the dustbins of history, a more apt phrase, to borrow from a proclamation by the late Chairman Mao, is that “[Eritrean] women hold up half the sky.”
By 1991, women made up 40% of the fighting force in EPLF. There would not be an independent Eritrea without Eritrean women.
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