In Memory of March 8
It is not the aim of this piece to preach on a matriarchal society, the existence and viability of which is bitterly disputed by historians and anthropologists alike. Instead the aim of this contribution on the fate of women on the occasion of the International Women´s Day, which falls on the 8th of March, is rather to give a very brief historical background of why the 8th of March should be commemorated.
This is intended to highlight women´s travails and tribulations globally and to look at it on Eritrean context, to revisit Eritrean women´s recent past history, their achievements and finally to explore the tasks ahead in improving women´s socio-economic situation in its context with their role in Eritrean society.
It occurred on 8 March of 1857. In one of the first organized actions by working women anywhere in the world, hundreds of women workers in garment and textile factories in New York City staged a strike against low wages, long working hours and inhumane working conditions. Half a century later, in August 1910, at a meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark the Women’s Socialist International decided to commemorate the strike by observing an annual International Women’s Day.
Undoubtedly the last couple of decades or so has witnessed flurry of activities on women´s issues. Women´s issues have in fact attracted considerable attentions from discussion fora, conferences, media outlets around the globe. Nevertheless the status quo on the ground has not been changed, if not worsened. The agonies and tragedies besetting women in the world are immense. Hence women remained to be victims of natural culmination (drought, flood), conflicts, human trade, diseases (AIDS), poverty and above all, injustices.
It is a common knowledge that nowhere in the world can women claim to have the same rights and opportunities as men. They continue to be among the poorest: the majority of the world’s one billion or so absolute poor are women. More than 70% of the women over 25 in much of Africa and Asia are illiterate. On the average, women receive much less payment than men earn for the same work. Everywhere women continue to be victims of violence, with rape and domestic violence listed as significant causes of disability and death among women of reproductive age worldwide. More than 15 million people in the world today are refugees protected by UNHCR (3.5 million in Africa); 80% of them are women and children.
An additional 26 million (mostly women and children) are believed to be internally displaced and homeless globally (due to disaster, conflicts… etc.), but inside their national borders. These figures of internal displacement of people or refugees could be much higher if the millions of often undocumented women and men who are forced to leave their countries each year to work as domestic servants, child care providers, prostitutes and agricultural workers in the “global market” of new form of slavery which is expanding. Neither do they include those who are compelled by landlessness, hunger and migrate from their homes in the countryside in search of subsistence work in overcrowded cities often ending up in slums. Nor do they include the exodus of some educated people (including women as brain-drain) from their countries for political or monetary reasons into the richer nations.
Moreover there are traditional practices of female genocides in many countries particularly in Asia and the Middle East, where foeticide (female foetus abortion) and infanticide (murder of female infants in a ritual fashion) are wide spread. Recent study estimated more than 100 million female human being lost every decade in such practices worldwide.
Furthermore a multi-purpose human trafficking industry (prostitution, pornography, paedophile and human organ trade) which became a multi-billion dollar (US$17 billion annually) business is rapidly expanding. In the absent of moral and ethical code of conduct of today’s world there is a medical industry serving as human warehouse with “full pledged human spare parts” for repairing of kidneys, corneas, bone marrow, skin and other defunct organs of the well-to-dos of the world; all this at the cost of the poor and helpless.
If we put the whole global mess in an African context where chronic or recurrent conflicts are the order of the day, African women face additional burdens, which could endanger their life. But data that prove the traditional practices of female genocides and human trafficking wide spread in the world are rare. Probably this is mainly because Africans may be poor in material wealth but certainly not in their moral and ethical values. Most African women´s ordeals therefore are related to the persistent displacement caused by continued internal or inter-state conflicts in the continent. Such displacements can often cause irreparable physical and psychological damages on women. After all one who lost his home has nothing to lose.
In addition home is not only a physical shelter for biological survival. It is indeed far beyond. Once displaced, people become soon disoriented, disconnected and helpless. They also lose self-confidence, lose a sense of self, lose memory (history), lose hope and at times it could be a loss of identity and culture. This happens to women too.
Displaced people start usually new home in refugee camps (makeshift camps), which is bound with variety of problems. Women in refugee camps are usually sexually misused and abused by staff of local or international humanitarian agencies. The latest reports from Eastern and Central Africa, as well as previous reports from Bosnia, West Africa and Kosovo show even the so called peacekeeping forces are heavily involved in such a business (sexual misuse or abuse).
As usual the report from West-Africa accused the victims for not doing enough to hinder such abuse to happen. But can the donor agencies justify this allegation? It is due to helplessness of women and lack of information about rights and entitlements of refugees to food and others services provided by international NGOs, those women may tend to be readily available for such sexual misuse and abuse. Nonfulfillment of the declared mission of NGOs coupled with lack of transparency and consistence of their activities can also be factors, which force women to try to make the best out of their predicament. In such camps young girls will mostly be vulnerable to sexual assaults. Unsuspecting small girls could easily be conned with small often insignificant gifts of money or materials. As a result of such sexual abuse unprepared pregnancy, untimely motherhood coupled with long-term dependency are the consequences. Sexually transmitted diseases are also inevitable.
Apart from human trafficking and traditional practices of female genocides, Eritrean women have gone through such anguishes throughout the entire struggle for liberation. Close to half a million Eritrean refugees (majority of whom are women and children) lived in more than 20 refugee camps for decades in the Sudan. Eritrean refugees were in fact among the longest serving refugees in the world (for 2-3 decades).
In post independent Eritrea they experienced tremendous hardship during the two year war with Ethiopia particularly at the height of the 3rd offensive of Ethiopia against Eritrea in May 2000 when thousands of Eritrean women were wantonly gang-raped, their properties vandalized or ransacked by Ethiopian soldiers. This manifests the agonies of Eritrean women in the recent past. Besides for centuries until the eve of the armed struggle for independence, women in Eritrean society as elsewhere in Africa and beyond were generally perceived as “the wealth of someone else”. Women were not allowed to inherit their father´s wealth. Women were seen more or less as a liability for the one side, and an asset for the other side, owing to the dowry commitment involved at her wedding.
Women should follow the principle; the family´s interest comes first before that of mine. That means women fed the family first and then they with the rest, if there was any at all. Women were not in possession of any property including land. Women never had an authority on household planning and management. But this is thing of the past for Eritrean women.
Even though the Eritrean women went through these painful ordeals like their peers in the world, Eritrean women, nonetheless have different story to tell which is worthy of praise, for their heroic achievements of which Eritrean men are so proud. Their heroic history is well known. Never in the world leave alone in Africa have had women such a magnificent historical accomplishment comparable to Eritrean women´s struggle for independence. A third of our liberation fighters were women. Soon women fighters became the backbone of the Eritrean struggle for independence.
Their dedications, determinations, heroic fighting and commanding abilities were but parallel to none. Women have enjoyed considerable authorities in different sectors and structures of the Eritrean peoples´ liberation front (EPLF). Their image and role in Eritrean society since then has dramatically changed for the better. The political consciousness of Eritrean women in general and that of women fighters in particular has risen remarkably and so has women´s confidence.
Thanks the role and sacrifices of the Eritrean women in the struggle for independence, Eritrea is now free and in its final stage in building a state of nationhood. This final stage includes the delineation on the map and demarcation on the ground, a process could have been followed by demarcation if Ethiopia were ready to be abided by the international agreement of Algiers which Ethiopia has signed. After delineation Eritrea is in the brink of rekindling of full pledged “war” against poverty, diseases and all the attendant causes of backwardness and ignorance, which are directly or indirectly the main causes for the women´s tribulations and agonies. The tasks of waging” a war” against the above mentioned evils would be a daunting challenge.
Ideally tackling such huge problems would have been easier if Eritrea had honest lending hands of the economic partners from the richer nations. This however is proven impossible due to the diverse interest or perception that exists between poorer and richer nations. This is because the donor nations claim to have known what is good for the recipient nations, their ultimate goal being to plan and execute projects from remote undermining the ownership and leadership of the recipient nations. Such a situation forced Eritreans yet again to take their destiny into their own hands as was the case during the struggle for independence. In that case Eritrean women´s role should once again play more prominent role than ever. To that end Eritrean women need to be equipped with necessary resources the nation can offer them.
At this juncture the Eritrean government should be given credit for its efforts to improve the quality of life of Eritrean women. This can evidently be seen in women´s right to own property (including land), improvements in education, health, political life (30% seats of parliament being reserved for women, hence a constitutional goodwill!).
Socially and economically there is tremendous improvement regarding women´s health, working conditions, women´s role in business sector, education…etc. Maternal mortality rate has been 1400/ 100,000, in 1991 but Eritrea succeeded to achieve 80% reduction which means to 280/100,000; in 2013. Infant mortality (children <5 year) in Eritrea has been reduced to 63%. Malaria mortality is reduced by 83% and prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Eritrea is the lowest (0.8%) in Sub-Saharan Africa. Such developments have certainly positive impact on women´s life in Eritrea. In the education front the country has achieved 80% adult literacy. Women´s role in business was almost non-existence in Eritrea. But currently it is rapidly improving due the micro credit scheme in the country.
In conclusion comparing to other African nations Eritrea as a young nation has indeed achieved a lot regarding women´s issues. But it still needs to push further to bring women´s issue to its highest level it deserves.
To address women´s issues in much of our continent the following messages are worth mentioning.
- Acquiring a national epidemiological data baseline on the commonest diseases may help health professionals to easily plan, implement, monitor and evaluate maternal and child health services across the nation. Furthermore inter – ministerial (e.g. between ministries of health, education, labor, agriculture and religious institutions), efforts of awareness campaign on hygiene, female genital mutilation, maternal and child nutrition and diseases (including sexually transmitted ones) need to be invigorated.
- To enhance the enthusiastic participation of women in all tasks in Africa as well as in our country, similar inter-ministerial coordinated efforts of awareness campaign needs to focus on women´s burning issues and identify their social, economic and traditional root causes (e.g. early marriage, parent´s favoritism towards boys, working at home after school and prostitution). Prostitution is mainly caused by low income, ignorance about its consequences and unemployment; need to be reckoned with seriously. It should be curtailed before it expands among the young and productive women in every country. For women´s health, women entrepreneurship and women political leadership education is an absolute necessity.
- Women´s working conditions in the African continent need to be improved. Legal mechanism need to be developed which should allow women 2 or 3 months paid leave after delivery and for 1 or 2 years low working hours (4 to 6 hrs. a day). Such a legal mechanism would undoubtedly stimulate many young women to pursue their careers without undermining family value (main current problem of the western societies). A similar legal provision can also help women who work in private families to go to evening schools.
- The role of Eritrean women in business sector is not merely an issue of women´s right but it has also strategic implication to Eritrea´s survival and hence should be dealt with great care! An ample example if we had considerable numbers of women entrepreneurs during the two year war against Ethiopian invasion, our economy would have not performed badly. Women should therefore be encouraged and helped to engage in small and medium businesses. To that end, women should get access to financial and technical resources of the state. Studies indicate women are more reliable for their creditors anyway.
An investment that improves women´s quality of life and make them the most productive and visible force in our society is, investing in the future of our countries. By doing so we can claim that the unfinished tasks on women´s issues are in fact finished and the role of women in a nation is fully recognized and accepted!
Girmay Gebremedhin is a life scientist can be contacted via email@example.com