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new internationalist
issue 253 - March 1994

Battle over, war begins
The battle against the brutal Mengistu regime in Ethiopia may be over, but for
many of the women who fought in it the war for women’s emancipation is only
just beginning. Caroline Swinburne reports on how women fighters
learned from hard experience.

The view from the small plane as we approached the regional capital of Mekele was far from inviting. Mile after mile of sandy nothingness and strange misshapen rocky mountains reached to the horizon and it was difficult to see how anyone carved out a life in this arid wilderness. The man sitting beside me said that just 30 years ago the hillsides of Ethiopia’s northern province of Tigray were covered with trees; now this war-torn, deforested land showed only too clearly the effects of decades of rebellion against the brutal regime of President Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Ex-fighters Aragesh Adada and Roman take it easy.

The war is now over, Mengistu has fled to Zimbabwe and efforts at regeneration have begun – but life in Tigray is still a struggle. As so often happens when life gets tough, it is women who bear the brunt of the problems – it is they who must grind the grain, carry the water and firewood and, very often, help with the work in the fields as well.

When the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) started their rebellion against the Mengistu regime in the 1970s, many women realized that the rebels could offer them an alternative to a life of endless domestic drudgery. An adventurous few decided to join up. They cut their hair short, changed out of their traditional white shemmas into khaki battle gear, left their husbands and fathers and set off for the front to eat, live, sleep and fight alongside the men.

Roman is now a feminine and sophisticated woman in her late thirties; she was just 20 when she decided to join the army. ‘At first my father didn’t know where I’d gone – but eventually he heard I’d joined the war. To begin with he was very confused and worried, and he was quite sure I would be killed.’

She soon discovered that life as a fighter was unimaginably hard. The highlands of Ethiopia are renowned for their inaccessibility and travel here is normally on foot. Most people live on the plateaux on the tops of the mountains; to walk even to the next village can mean a day-long descent down one gorge and up the side of the next. The guns were heavy, the army was constantly on the move and the women fighters had little physical training.

At first their male comrades also found the new social order difficult. The women shared life in the field to the full but for the first 10 years of the war sexual relationships between fighters were forbidden. In 1986 the rules were changed to allow the women to marry and have children, but most refused the opportunity. For the first time in their lives they had developed a real sense of comradeship with their menfolk; many of the women felt that to revert to the role of housewife would be a serious setback. ‘Personally I didn’t want to have children because I believed that it would hinder my activity,’ says ex-fighter Lichy.

As the war progressed the TPLF joined with other rebel groups to form a coalition, and by the late 1980s they held power in a significant area in the north of the country. Here they started to introduce their own legislation which rewarded women for their war efforts by a change in the marriage laws. ‘Basic to women’s equality was raising the minimum age of marriage,’ says British writer Jenny Hammond, who lived with the fighters in the field during part of the war. ‘In the old days women in Tigray were often pressed into marriage when they were as young as seven years old. But under the TPLF the age limit was first raised to 12 and then 15 and in some areas it is now 18.’

In June 1992 the war was finally won and the coalition of rebel fighters came to metropolitan Addis Ababa, where they now form the new transitional government. Now the euphoria of winning the war is fading a little, they are discovering that it is far from easy to interest women who live in the south of the country in ideas of female emancipation.

During the Mengistu era the whole idea of women’s rights developed many unpleasant connotations. ‘Under the last regime we had a National Organization for Women,’ explains Addis Ababa resident Gemanesh Solomon. ‘But it wasn’t long before we realized that their interminable meetings weren’t actually meant to help us at all, but were rather just designed to promote the ideology of the government.’ Many southern women are still disinclined to trust government promises.

Some progress has been made, however. For the first time there are two women ministers in the cabinet, and an officer for women’s affairs. Rural women can now participate in their local councils, and they also have the right to hold land. This means that girl children are now no longer thought to be a curse – because they bring a share of land into a family they are seen as an asset.

All the same, in a country as impoverished as Ethiopia there is a limit to what any government can hope to achieve to improve domestic life. ‘Many of the women are prevented from participating in these new opportunities just because they have so much household work,’ says Hammond. ‘For them these new opportunities simply mean additional labour when they’re already so hard-worked.’

The day when the women of Ethiopia can expect serious help with household tasks from the menfolk still seems to be a long way off. Until that time, whilst their battle may be won the war is still far from over.

‘We achieved a lot during the conflict – but there are still many problems,’ admitted Roman. ‘The housework is still there, women still have to fetch the water and the firewood and do all the cooking. So we must continue our struggle. Now the country is at peace we must work to change society and to achieve the true emancipation of women.’

Caroline Swinburne is a freelance writer who lives in London.

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