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Violence Against Women: It is Not an Eritrean Cultural Norm

Eritrean women walking around Mai Jah Jah area in Asmara

Women around the world celebrated International Women’s Day on 8 March 2016 and in Eritrea and in the Eritrean Communities around the world, the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) hosted various events to commemorate the day. The theme for this year’s NUEW events is “Equality: Shield for Sustainable Development”. Discussions on gender equality, women’s empowerment, women’s health and women’s roles in achieving the sustainable development goals etc. were held at various forums including at the United Nations. The elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls has been the main topic. Violence against women and girls stemming from harmful traditional practices, to societal attitudes are being addressed at the various international forums.

Valeris M. Hudson, in her article “What Sex Means for World Peace”, writes:

…there is a strong and highly significant link between state security and women’s security. In fact, the very best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not its level of wealth, its level of democracy, or its ethno-religious identity; the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated… What happens to women affects the security, stability, prosperity, bellicosity, corruption, health, regime type, and (yes) the power of the state…the primary challenge facing the 21st century is to eliminate violence against women and remove barriers to developing their strength, creativity, and voices…

Despite the 15 year long Ethiopian occupation and the 6 year long illegal and unjust US-Ethiopia engineered sanctions, visitors to Eritrea will attest to the country’s peace, safety and security. Crime rate in Eritrea is very low and violent crimes are almost non-existent. Women hold a special place in Eritrean society and it is against Eritrean cultures and values to commit sexual and other violence against them. If and when such crimes are committed, the law is stringent and swift.

But western media narratives on Eritrea in the last 15 years have attempted to portray Eritrea, a society with an exemplary culture of ethnic and religious respect and tolerance, a country with a long religious history-both Christianity and Islam, a country with rich cultural values, and one of the few countries in sub-Saharan Africa that codified its customary laws as early as in the 14th century, as a violent nation, where violence against women is acceptable or the norm. They point to the 30 year liberation war from 1961-1991 and Eritrea’s defense against Ethiopia’s expansionist war of aggression and occupation as evidence of a “violent culture”.

The people of Eritrea did not choose to fight for their independence, but rather, they were forced to do so when the US led international community refused to respect their right to self-determination and forced Eritrea into a federation with Ethiopia against the wishes of the Eritrean people. The United Nations remained silent when Ethiopia annexed Eritrea. The 30- year struggle for independence was not of the Eritrean people’s choice. They launched the armed struggle and paid heavy sacrifices, only when the US led international community ignored their plea and Ethiopia cemented its occupation of Eritrea. Today, once again, the US led international community refuses to take any punitive actions against the regime in Ethiopia that continues to occupy sovereign Eritrean territories, including Badme, in violation of the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission’s final and binding delimitation and demarcation decisions of 13 April 2002 and November 2007 respectively.

Speaking at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW60) side event “Eradicating All Forms of Violence against Women and Girls: Why it Matters for Sustainable Development”, held at the United Nations Headquarters on 15 March 2016, Lakshmi Puri, UN Women Deputy Executive Director said

…We must continue to address gender inequality and discrimination as the root causes of violence against women and girls…

But are gender inequality and discrimination the root causes of violence against women? Is that the case for all women in all states? Poverty is also cited as being a cause for increase in violence against women. Some of the world’s poorest economies have the strongest cultural traditions. Being economically poor does not necessarily make one prone to violence, and being rich does not necessarily mean being cultured.

Some of the worst cases of violence against women are taking place in the richest economy. To illustrate this point, allow the author to present results from a 2014 study done by FRA, an EU Agency for Fundamental Right:

• The FRA study showed that in three countries often praised for their gender equality, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, high numbers of women reported suffering violence since the age
of 15.

• In Denmark 52%, Finland 47%, and Sweden 46% of women said they suffered physical or sexual violence. According to the FRA survey, the UK reported fifth highest incidence of physical and sexual violence (44%), whereas women in Poland reported the lowest – 19%.

• Some 12 % of women indicate that they have experienced some form of sexual abuse or incident by an adult before the age of 15, which corresponds to about 21 million women in the EU.

• The survey showed that an estimated 13 million women in the EU have experienced physical violence within the previous year, while some 3.7 million women had experienced sexual violence.

• According to the study, 8 in 10 women (78 %) in the EU think that violence against women is very common or fairly common in their country.

In the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)- -there is an average of 293,066 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year.

If gender inequality and discrimination were not the root causes, what caused these high incidence of physical and sexual violence against women in the United States and in European states?

The relevance of culture to the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment cannot be stressed enough. The National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) in its over 3 decades long work to abolish harmful traditional practices, such as FGM, was in essence working to bring about a change in attitude, change in behaviors, change in culture that prevailed in Eritrean society. NUEW sought the intervention of all stakeholders, including religious leaders, in order to bring about change. By the time the FGM law was established in 2007, Eritrean society had been sufficiently synthesized and implementation of the law was made easier.

The language Eritreans use reflects the society’s attitudes towards crimes and the perpetrators. Every child growing up in Eritrean families will remember hearing two words- ?? gega and ??? newri. Gega means wrong/mistake, and newri means shame/shameful.

In Eritrean society, acts, such as rape, are considered as serious crimes, and also shameful. Perpetrators are not only punished harshly when found, they are also ostracized from the community.

They are acts that bring shame to the families concerned and the village and wider community. It is this culture that prevails in Eritrea today-one that does not condone violence against women-especially sexual violence.

Violence against women is not an African or Asian or European issue. Nor is it a poverty issue. It is a cultural issue. Eritrean culture and society is promoting a zero-tolerance for violence against women and girls.
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