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Eritrea: Gender Equality and Development

H.E. Ambassador Araya Desta

Eritrea: Gender Equality and Development

Recently, the Permanent Mission of the State of Eritrea to the African Union (AU) hosted a seminar on the topic of women’s empowerment and gender equality. Titled “Women’s Empowerment and Development: the Eritrean Experience,” the seminar showcased Eritrea’s efforts to improve women’s empowerment and the livelihood of women, underscoring how the country has, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB), “gone a long way towards achieving gender equality.” This article provides a brief historical summary of Eritrea’s efforts to promote gender equality and explores the important societal role of women......

The country’s independence struggle would prove key in challenging existing long held gender stereotypes and structural systems of inequality. 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. For example, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) – which administered large swathes of what was then Ethiopia – introduced initiatives to abolish female genital mutilation/ cutting (FGM/C), forced marriages, bride price, child marriages, kidnappings, and dowries.

Importantly, within the annals of revolutionary liberation and guerrilla movements, Eritrea’s women were set apart upon two dimensions – their role (they performed all duties, even fighting on the frontlines) and their number (they constituted upwards of onethird of the independence army). During the war, Eritrean women comprised more than 30 percent of the fighting force and they served in all capacities, including as “ combatants, active organisers, teachers and administrators, as well as mechanics, electricians, electronic engineers, watch repairers, tailors, barefoot doctors, and village health workers” (Firebrace and Holland 1985: 41; Hale 2001: 160-161). Ultimately, Eritrean women would prove absolutely critical to the eventual achievement of independence. 

In honor and recognition of Eritrean women’s monumental contribution to the liberation struggle, the country undertook several significant steps after independence to formally guarantee women’s equal standing in all sectors of society. It ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (signed 20 December 1993 and ratified 3 August 1994), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (acceded 5 September 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 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 worldwide, has actively coordinated, monitored, and implemented a broad array of programs, initiatives, and public campaigns. Importantly, NUEW’s multifaceted 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. 

Towards improving gender equality, Eritrea has made the expansion of educational opportunities for females a national priority. For example, it has worked to revise curricula and teaching materials to make them gender sensitive, and improved accessibility by increasing the number of female teachers and establishing boarding schools for girls in remote areas. Notably, since independence, national gender disparities in enrolment, completion, and literacy have improved significantly. The 2013- 2017 Eritrea National Education Expansion Development Report notes that “female gender parity with males will be achieved in elementary and middle education by 2015/16, and in secondary education by 2016,” and that “in technical and vocational education and training the enrolment of girls has continued to grow.” Of note, literacy rates for young girls and women in are considerably higher than those for adults, suggesting that the country’s efforts to strengthen the supply and quality of basic education programmes, particularly for females, have been successful. 

The positive developmental impact of improving access to education for females should not be understated. According to the International Center for Research on Women, “Women are more likely to control their own destinies and effect change in their communities when they have higher levels of education.” Furthermore, higher rates of enrolment and achievement decrease fertility and improve child health, while also promoting economic growth and poverty reduction by enhancing poor people’s chances of securing a job, raising productivity and earnings of the working poor, and increasing the efficiency of entrepreneurs (Hauchler and Kennedy 1994). 

Eritrea’s attention to gender equality has also extended to the employment and economic sectors. Globally, women’s economic empowerment is increasingly recognized as an important 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 socioeconomic potential.

The diverse efforts promoting equality, coupled with gradual – yet quite 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 semirural 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, with a considerable proportion controlling 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 highskilled sectors.

Overall, Eritrean women have been a fundamental part of Eritrean society. Today, they are active within all areas and they contribute in many diverse ways, playing a crucial role in the country’s socioeconomic progress and general development. 

Women’s Empowerment and Development: the Eritrean Experience via African Union Commission

In a bid to contribute to the success of the AU theme of the year, the Permanent Mission of the State of Eritrea to AU and UNECA in collaboration of the African Union Commission (AUC) has today organized a seminar under the theme “Women’s Empowerment and Development: the Eritrean Experience” to share Eritrea’s experience in regard to the policies adopted and the actions taken to improve the livelihood of women, women’s empowerment and promote gender equality.

The seminar was attended by ambassadors, diplomats, Journalists, AUC and UNECA officials.

Speaking during the seminar, Mrs. Mahawa Kaba Wheeler, Director of Women, Gender and Development (WGDD) of the AUC applauded Eritrea’s progress to ensure land ownership legislation for women, secure education for girls in highlands and nomadic areas, the criminalization of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as well as the successful multisectorial approach on addressing gender equality.

Furthermore, Mrs. Wheeler underscored that Eritrean women have earned their rightful place in the society through active participation and contribution to the struggle for national independence and nation-building efforts.

“After independence, the Eritrean women, through their Union, the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW), has worked studiously to ensure the socio-cultural, economic and political empowerment of women through various innovative projects and gender mainstreaming in government institutions,” the director noted.

H.E. Ambassador Araya Desta, Permanent Representative of the State of Eritrea to the AU and UNECA expressed his honor and pleasure to welcome all participants to the seminar.

Continuing his deliberation, he stated that during the days of the armed struggle for independence, the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) was established in the liberated areas. The enhancement of the role of Eritrean women in all aspects of life, and guaranteeing their equality has been a top national priority. Women empowerment remains at the center of Eritrea’s development strategy which is firmly anchored in socialjustice, self-reliance, and popular participation and ownership.

Furthermore, he underlined, the success Eritrea has registered in the empowerment of women include, inter-alia, increased participation of women in the socio-economic and political life of the society, achieving in advance the MDGs target of reducing maternal mortality by two-third, ensuring the right of women to own land and property, and effectively combating violence against women and harmful traditional practices.

However, in patriarchal society, emancipation of women for social revolution and finally earn the right place was not easy, according to Ambassador Desta, like many of the countries of the developing world. Hence, the experience of Eritrean women is not much different from the other developing countries. It is in that regard that more efforts and a continuous struggle must be enacted. Moreover, the Ambassador reiterated that with the full support of the government of the State of Eritrea, the National Union of Eritrean Women has made the empowerment of women a national priority, and committed to a development agenda grounded in social justice and gender equality.

Coordinator African Centre for Gender social Development policy division of the UNECA, Ms. Thokozile Ruzvidzo in her remarks recognized the efforts undertaken by the AU Head of States and Government for dedicating this year’s theme, “this is an acknowledgement that African governments put significant recognition on the importance of the rights of women and that it’s important to ensure that women enjoy their rights as any citizen of the continent”.

Ms. Ruzvidzo congratulated the State of Eritrea for organizing the seminar to share with participants and the rest of the world how Eritrea is progressing in empowering women as well as addressing gender inequality.

This year the scorecard will focus on women’ political, social and economic rights, Ms. Ruzvidzo appeal to the Ambassador of Eritrea that his country will be one of the countries that will be awarded.

Participants had the chance to watch a short documentary film titled the ‘Eritrean Women’ have had the opportunities for lengthy interactions. 

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Eritrea: Gender Equality and Development Reviewed by Admin on 12:00 AM Rating: 5

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