The Ignored Cries of Tigray’s Women in Ethiopia

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This essay won 1st place in the 2023 YRIS High School Essay Contest for its response to the following prompt: “What is a current issue in international relations or world affairs that does not receive enough attention in global media?” Content Warning: This column contains graphic references to sexual violence.

I want the world to hear my story and Tigrayan women’s story. Hear our cries.”[1]

This is the agonizing plea of Melat*, a Tigrayan woman who was gang raped by Eritrean soldiers during the Tigray war. Though her words are a call for recognition, for care, unfortunately they have been brushed aside, overlooked by mainstream media.

The Tigray War, lasting from November 2020 to November 2022, between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation’s Front,[2] was an ethno-nationalist conflict turned humanitarian crisis that left 600,000 civilians dead and a mountain of human rights violations in its wake.[3] In March 2023, United States’s Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, declared that members of the Tigrayan, Ethiopian, and Eritrean forces (supporters of Ethiopia’s federal government) all committed crimes against humanity which included widespread “rape and other forms of sexual violence”.[4] Throughout the duration of the conflict, sexual violence, an instrument of war explicitly recognized by The United Nations Security Council as such, was wielded by both sides of the conflict to degrade and dehumanize victims, as well as carry out ethnic cleansing.[5] The latter, is corroborated by mass reports of soldiers, overwhelmingly serving the Ethiopian and Eritrean government, telling their victims they raped them to “cleanse the Tigrayan bloodline.”[6] Sexual violence is not specific to any culture or continent, but in recent years the African continent has been disproportionately affected by a wave of internal conflicts in which sexual violence is a pervasive symptom.[7] Despite its severity, the response of the international community to sexual violence during armed conflict has been dictated by silence, with former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, characterizing it as “the least condemned war crime.”[8] Such neglect allows for its proliferation and sullies the peace process.

Though the Tigray war officially ended on November 2, 2022, widespread sexual violence, most of wich is perpetrated against Tigrayan women by Ethiopian and Eritrean government forces, continues.[9] According to data from the official Tigray Health Bureau, after the peace deal was signed, in November and December 2022, 852 cases were reported.[10] Sister Mulu Mesfin, a worker at a hospital in Mekelle (regional capital of Tigray), corroborated this data affirming, “most of them [sexual assault survivors]…have been raped in the last one or two months.”[11] Yet not only have both the governments remained silent, but as they did during the war, each continues to deny the scale of the violence.

During the conflict, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement accusing the U.S government of “overblowing things out of proportions,” after its Secretary of State outlined the sexual violence crisis as a form of “ethnic cleansing.” The Ethiopian government also repeatedly rejected calls for independent international investigations, instead employing an internal taskforce to investigate allegations of conflict-related sexual violence.[12] As of April 2022, prosecutors reportedly only pressed charges against 25 soldiers, and convicted 4, for committing acts of gender-based violence.[13] Transparency regarding these trails is severely lacking. Furthermore, as of February, 2023, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki called the reports of prolific rape, “a fantasy”[14] and Ethiopian Prime minister Abiy Ahmed continuously opposed a UN-mandated inquiry into such atrocities by attempting to pass a draft motion calling for its conclusion six months early, a move that would block its publication and debate at the U.N Human Rights council.[15] However, the attempt failed due to overwhelming pressure from member states and since than the U.S Secretary of State announced on March 20th 2023 that U.S officials have began participating in workshops with Ethiopian government officials on transitional justice as part of a partnership with “Ethiopia to implement a credible transitional justice process for the benefit of all victims and affected communities.”[16]

International bodies have resisted attempts to deny and obscure the proliferation of sexual violence during and following the Tigray war through public condemnations and investigations, but its glaring absence from the media’s attention hinders this resistence. This raises the question, why? In his book, “Stealth Conflicts: How the World’s Worst Violence is Ignored,” Virgil Hawkins argues that proximity, access, and complexity are crucial factors that influence whether a conflict is covered by mainstream media. Unfortunately, as too many sub-saharan African conflicts are, the sexual violence crisis in Tigray is often considered of limited interest to Western media and their readers because it involves people considered too different culturally and living too far away.[17] Though the war in Ukraine demonstrates the capacity of the international community to overcome the barrier of geographic distance, it further emphasizes the need for cultural and racial “closeness” to provoke action. Thus, African suffering remains neglected by Western media; and so, suffering continues. Additionally, lack of access by journalists and human right organizations to Tigray due to the Ethiopian government’s intermittent communications blackout and entry barriers made it extremely difficult to report on the crisis. The war itself was also extremely complex with all sides being implicated as perpetrators of sexual violence, thereby making it difficult to cut a clear ‘good-versus-evil’ storyline that dominate media feeds. As war continues to be defined and documented by a “man’s voice,” with women representing only 24% of news subjects and sources, crises involving women, like the one in Tigray, are systemically underrepresented in the media.[18]

Sexual violence during war times is admittedly difficult to prevent, however prevention begins with recognition. To engage the international community and ensure that the “conspiracy of silence” surrounding sexual violence, as Former UN Under Secretary-General Jan Egeland pointed out, is finally brought to light, mainstream media must address its own biases and commit to spotlighting neglected issues. Too often amidst war time, women are used as battlegrounds for conquest. The international community’s gross negligence towards the weaponization of sexual violence must come to an end. The women of Tigray’s deserve for their voices to be heard and commitment beyond empty promises of “never again.”


*anonymous name

[1] Hailou, Sesina. “Tigray’s War Used Women’s Bodies as Battlefields. 3 People Shared Their Stories With Me.” Global Citizen, December 12, 2022.

[2] CNN. “Tigray War Fast Facts,” November 11, 2022.

[3] IMS. “Women’s Voices Are Missing from Ukraine Media Coverage,” June 2, 2022.

[4] Lee, Matthew. “US: War Crimes on All Sides in Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict.” Associated Press, March 20, 2023.

[5] Bader, Laetitia. “How International Bodies Can Help Prevent More Ethiopia Massacres.” Human Rights Watch, December 8, 2021.

[6] Ibid.

[7] UNIFEM. “Addressing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence – An Analytical Inventory of Peacekeeping Practice,” n.d. Accessed May 1, 2023.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Byaruhanga, By Catherine. “Ethiopia War in Tigray: Eritrean Soldiers Accused of Rape despite Peace Deal.” BBC News, February 15, 2023.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Bader. “How International Bodies Can Help Prevent More Ethiopia Massacres.”

[13] “‘We Will Erase You from This Land.’” Human Rights Watch, April 6, 2022.

[14] Byaruhanga. “Ethiopia War in Tigray: Eritrean Soldiers Accused of Rape despite Peace Deal.”

[15] Tétrault-Farber, Emma FargeGabrielle. “Exclusive: Ethiopia Seeks to End U.N.-Ordered Probe into Tigray War Abuses.” Reuters, February 27, 2023.

[16] Conte, Michael, and Kylie Atwood. “Blinken Accuses All Sides in Ethiopian Conflict of Committing War Crimes.” CNN, March 20, 2023.

[17] New Internationalist. “Why Do Some Conflicts Get More Media Coverage than Others?,” September 1, 2012.

[18] IMS. “Women’s Voices Are Missing from Ukraine Media Coverage,” June 2, 2022.


Solemei was a Junior at the Village School in Houston, Texas when she submitted this piece to the 2023 YRIS High School Essay Competition.