V-day and the Decade of the African Woman – a glimpse on the habesha migrants’ situation

On the 14th February 2013, the V-Day, the word is being spread so that 1 billion people might rise to demand the end of violence against women all over the world. 200 countries have welcomed the initiative, including some African countries. And thinking on the African context, this day may also be associated with the Decade of the African Woman, recognized in October 2010 by the African Union and the United Nations, aiming to develop gender equality and women’s empowerment. This decade was launched following the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, better known as the Maputo Protocol (2003, into force since 2005).

Some of the key intentions of this protocol relate to the non-discrimination of women, considering their right to dignity, integrity and security in life, including the elimination of harmful practices such as the female genital mutilation. In what regards to the private sphere, this protocol also foresees a fairer set of practices regarding marriage, separation and divorce, as well regarding health and reproductive rights. Food security, education, economic and social welfare, housing, sustainable environment and development are also considered. Special focus is put on elderly and widow women, women with disability, in distress and in armed conflicts. This protocol has been signed by many African countries, yet not by them all, and its ratification occurred by even fewer. The main opposition arguments by Christian entities relate to reproductive rights (in which abortion is authorized “in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the fetus”, Article 14, 2.c), while Muslim entities add objections related to traditional practices, namely limiting the minimum age for marrying, eliminating female genital mutilation (even though this practice is not predicted in the Koran) and the protocol’s encouragement towards monogamy. Considering the habesha contexts, Ethiopia has signed but not ratified and Eritrea has neither signed nor ratified the Maputo Protocol.


Let this be the moment to recall the Ethiopian and Eritrean women we have met. Beyond their immediate silence and contemporary smile, some stories have been shared. Only a few words have been said about the unequal treatment back in their home countries; still, we could in part observe it in the division of tasks and roles within the communities in diaspora, or even considering the women misrepresentation in the public spheres back in Ethiopia and Eritrea (a tendency being reversed through some business initiatives and mainly civic associations). But when we talked about violence, the shared memories had stronger marks.

– The lack of dignity attributed by Italian families to some of the first habesha female migrants – the housemaid with no rights or freedom, the first generations of migrants that so many times did not even have the opportunity to constitute family.

– The religious prejudice during the trip (passing through Islamic countries with orthodox Christian crosses tattooed in the front) and the racism sometimes felt in Italy, from comments in public transports or in the streets to the avoidance in working places.

– The problem of being mixed-breed and its consequences when living in Ethiopia or Eritrea: mixed families were obliged to split or change country and join the armies after the war. Many girls and women felt forced to escape, trying to study or work abroad.

– The violence in prisons and the need to escape from the home countries – some younger women escaped from hospitals while recovering from prison torture. They have been considered political or humanitarian refugees in Italy.

– There has been reference by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and by some civic associations about kidnappings and disappearances of Eritrean, Ethiopian and other East Africans in transit countries such as Sudan, Libya and Egypt, an occurrence that has been pointed regarding men, women and even pregnant women that escaped from detention centers.

– Different forms of violence during the trip: women, like men, faced smuggling and human trafficking, had to engage in uncontrolled illegal labor and where imprisoned and deported, sometimes back to the desert, left with their hunger and thirst. Besides, sexual abuse and exploitation of women by the employers, smugglers and police officials in transit countries was referenced by many of the interviewed male migrants.

We rise up for women’s rights in their homelands, in their pathways and in their arrival contexts. Some habesha women felt forced to migrate due to war, persecution, political imprisonment and mistreatment, which constitute undoubtful forms of violence. In their pathways, mainly for the most recent generations, other episodes of violence occurred such as human traffic, labor exploitation, kidnap, deportation and sexual abuse. In their arrival context, references on racism and lack of dignity have been heard. Women’s rights must be guaranteed in the African home countries – it is important that the Maputo Protocol and the Decade for the African Woman become better known – as also in the transit and arrival contexts, both for certified citizens as for the asylum seekers all over the globe.

“East Africa: attitudes, lives and livelihoods – the fight for women’s rights in East Africa”, Thembi Mutch, January 2013, Think Africa Press (in allAfrica)

“UNHCR concern at refugee kidnappings, disappearances in Eastern Sudan”, Melissa Fleming, January 2013, UNHCR

“SOS Libya: Refugees in the Horn of Africa subjected to untold suffering”, Don Mussie Zerai, February 2013, Agenzia Habeshia

“Profughi schiavi, esplode l’emergenza del campo di Shagarab: rapporto Onu al Palazzo delle Nazioni a Ginevra”, Emilio Drudi, January 2013, Agenzia Habeshia


UPDATE: President Afwerki spoke about the military coup on the 8th February, admiting that it happened but considering there is no reason for being aprehensive. Besides, the access from Asmara to the Qatari TV news network Al Jazeera – that gave coverage to demonstrations held by exiled Eritreans in solidarity of the mutinous soldiers – has been blocked. Nothing is known about the dissent soldiers.

“Eritrea’s president breaks silence over army mutiny incident”, Sudan Tribune/allAfrica, 10-02-2013

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