New Internationalist

No Woman Is An Island

Issue 270

No woman is an island

Post-war euphoria usually means the
enforced return of women to their kitchens.
Jane Henriques finds that in Tigray
things have turned out differently...

‘Our great achievement,’ Román tells us with pride, ‘is that now we are able to elect – and be elected. Before, women could not even speak in public.’ Shortly afterwards, in Ethiopia’s first-ever national elections, three Tigrayan women are elected for the first time as members of Parliament. Their support came from a huge electorate of uneducated women. ‘Whenever a woman speaks at any national meeting,’ says Román, ‘you expect to hear a Tigrayan accent!’ In the Tigrayan regional Parliament 17.6 per cent of members are women – not professional or educated women, but peasants.

In Román’s office a banner declares: ‘Development is based on peace and the equality of women.’ This is the headquarters of the most radical organization in Ethiopia, the Democratic Association of Tigray Women (DATW), of which Román is Chair. Outside on the dirt road women stagger home with vast jars of water on their backs, or lug huge sacks of grain from the market, followed by men prodding donkeys with a stick. In the church compound opposite, hundreds of women, swathed from head-to-toe in long white shawls and standing well apart from the men, attend a Lent service. Those who are menstruating or who have recently had sex may not enter the church. A priest berates them for letting their children run around. ‘If you don’t teach your children respect for the Lord you will surely bring drought, famine and destruction upon the country – there will be no development or progress!’

From fighters to mechanics: Medihin and Wahid are part of the new cohort of Tigrayan women. ‘Let me take you to our poultry project’, says Román, clearly impatient with talking theory. We arrive at a construction site on the edge of Makelle, the capital of Tigray, which was finally liberated in 1989 not just from Mengistu’s military regime but from a century of Amharic domination.

Román, a slight elegant woman in her thirties, was one of the first women fighters with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Their role in the 17-year war was crucial. One-third of the troops, some 40,000, were women. Their participation proved emphatically to men and to women themselves, that they were equally capable. The Women Fighters’ Association was formed and later, when peace was achieved in 1991, amalgamated with a civilian organization to become the DATW, which now has half a million members. It has been instrumental in the drafting of a new national policy document on Ethiopian women.

‘But the front line is an island,’ says Román. ‘Those kinds of role reversals were contained within an island. The war has not ended... what we struggled against then and still have to overthrow is underdevelopment.’

We sit in the jeep as the first of the ‘short rains’ pour down, and look at a few roofless huts. Román explains proudly that this will provide jobs for eight women, eggs and meat that they can sell, and livestock to start projects for other women. ‘At this stage,’ she says, ‘we cannot afford to live with our heads in the clouds. Our targets are rooted in the here and now.’

The construction site seems to symbolize the nature of the struggle: the Tigrayan people are working out their political development at the same time as they labour to rebuild their country. For Tigrayan women, who could not, under feudalism, own anything or be anything, and who did no better under Mengistu, a chicken project represents a huge step forward.

Women are traditionally responsible for the bulk of domestic work and a third of the agricultural tasks, and unless their communities have flour mills and wells they spend their lives in gruelling physical labour, fetching water and firewood, grinding corn, cooking and looking after children. They are frequently condemned to a life of childbearing with virtually no medical assistance for them or their children. A visit to Makelle’s hospital impresses us with the magnitude of Román’s task.

The stench of the overflowing latrine practically overwhelms us as we enter the gynaecological wing (the hospital has running water for one hour a day). We are taken round the wards by Dr Berhe. Until recently she was the only gynaecologist for more than two million women. The first ward is full of women with prolapsed wombs. None of them is much over 35. Incessant childbearing from an early age and carrying gigantic weights leaves most rural women in chronic pain. Mortality is also high, much of it from ‘backstreet’ abortions (abortion is illegal) and haemorrhaging in labour.

In the next ward two young girls are in for fistula operations. Mahtsenema is only 13. A few years ago she would have been married at 7 or 8, but now the minimum age of marriage for girls is 15. Poverty, however, drives parents to marry off their daughters as soon as they can. She has been raped by the man to whom she was engaged, badly ruptured and could have been incontinent for life if she had not had an operation.

Not resting on her laurels; Roman has her feet on the ground. Bedela, 18, has been damaged, as so many girls are, by prolonged labour while her body was still too immature for childbearing. ‘For every one who gets this operation,’ Dr Berhe informs us, ‘there are probably three or four more that we never hear about. They will be social outcasts. These are the lucky ones.’

Hadesh, an informal ‘midwife’ upgraded and trained by the Mengistu regime as a ‘traditional birth attendant’, makes tea for us in her tiny room, a chicken clucking round her ‘kit’. ‘I tell women that early marriage is bad, and not to circumcise their daughters as it complicates labour. Most people in the towns don’t do it now. I used to believe that if it wasn’t done the man would have difficulty penetrating – but I don’t now.’ Some priests in the Orthodox Church still endorse genital mutilation, saying that an ‘uncircumcised’ girl will have uncurbable desires and society will fall apart as a consequence.

As we set off for our next appointment, pondering on the enormity of the Association’s task, we suddenly catch sight of two young women swinging down the street in blue dungarees and men’s sandals (a sure sign that they have been fighters). We delightedly chase after them.

Medihin, 23, and Wahid, 24, are mechanics for the Relief Society of Tigray. They joined the TPLF as girls of 12 or 13 (one way of avoiding an early marriage). and were given a basic education and arms and then taught to be mechanics. After battle they recovered tanks abandoned by the Ethiopian Army and repaired them for use by the TPLF.

‘We were never afraid,’ says Medihin, ‘we just wanted to get education and clinics for our people’. ‘The men knew we were fighters,’ Wahid tells us. ‘We worked with them, and struggled with them so we were accepted.’ Now they work keeping Food Aid trucks on the road. ‘Because we were in the struggle we got equality with the men – that’s why we’re happy working here. If we had not done this we would have been like other women in the village – carrying jars of water.’

‘The armed conflict did fuel expectations for women to participate,’ Román tells us, ‘and huge barriers to change have been dismantled in the process. Now we encourage women to participate in everything.’ We are soon to learn just how far this philosophy is taken. Thousands of women all over Tigray are being mobilized in ‘Soil and Water Conservation’ schemes to rehabilitate the very damaged land. These include re-afforestation, dam-building and terracing.

Awtash is our guide as we set off in the early morning to visit a major local project, bumping along a rocky track across a high and arid plateau. One of Román’s ‘next-in-command’, Awtash is the Women’s Association Chair for the whole of the southern zone of Tigray. ‘I joined the TPLF during the war,’ she tells us. ‘But I had young children so they wouldn’t let me be a combat fighter.’ Armed and trained nonetheless, she campaigned among young people to politicize them and involve them in the liberation struggle. This experience was invaluable. Going now from village to village, mostly on foot, she has mobilized almost 5,000 villagers to build an earth dam to provide irrigation for their fields. We pass small groups of them, endlessly streaming in from all directions as if in some vast biblical drama, to converge on the worksite. At least half are women, babies on their backs, dressed in the long greying robes, the colour of the earth, that are typical of the region. Some are making a three-hour journey to work for eight hours to receive three kilos of flour.

‘Because they often get good results very quickly it makes them feel strong and confident,’ Awtash explains. ‘Often men and women have not worked side-by-side like this before. The men see how capable the women are and the women are less afraid of the men when they go to meetings.’

This pays off at local council level, where one-third of the members are now women. But as two of the criteria for membership are literacy and proven leadership skills, this leaves women at a disadvantage. ‘It is not an issue of women against men,’ insists Román. ‘Women are the victims of a backward society and until we build our economy this will not change much – that is why women must participate in every aspect of development.’

Jane Henriques is a freelance writer who has recently returned from Ethiopia.
All photos by Jane Henriques

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