Eritrea is located in the Horn of Africa, and won its independence from Ethiopia after 30 years of a bitter, bloody and costly armed struggle. The war of independence started in 1961 and Eritrea formally declared independence on 24 May 1993, after an overwhelming yes vote in a referendum overseen by the United Nations.
Eritrea is one of only two countries in the world which has conscription of women. The government has militarised the country completely. Forced recruitment of young people, underage children, and adults under 50 is a daily event. Recruits are treated brutally and there is evidence of sexual abuse of women. Nobody has a right to question the military authorities. Nobody has a right to conscientious objection. Conscientious objectors are branded by the regime as cowardly and unpatriotic. There is no recourse to the law, nor substitute civilian service for conscientious objectors. The consequences of conscientious objection and desertion are severe torture, long-term imprisonment and even death.
The number of conscientious objectors within the military increased after the border war with Ethiopia in 1998–2000. Today there are thousands who objected to military service. They are forced to go into exile. Considerable numbers of them are seeking political asylum in Europe, especially Germany, Libya, Ethiopia, Egypt, Israel and Sudan. In Germany, Eritrean refugees founded the Eritrean Antimilitarism Initiative (EAI) which supports refugees and works to promote peace and antimilitarism in Eritrea.
Due to the excessive abuses and violation of human rights against women by the military, the number of women who have tried to leave their country has been high. Ruta Yosef-Tudla and Bisrat Habte Micael are two young women who are courageous enough to tell their experiences to the public. Ruta is a pacifist and fled before she was drafted. Bisrat tells her story from the perspective of her compulsory national service, before she managed to flee. They are now living in Germany.
There is no human rights organisation to campaign against the abuses suffered by conscripts. The Eritrean Women's Association has been part of the regime and shows little concern, or is not allowed even, to investigate rapes and other sexual abuses in the military.
It is believed that one in four of the fighters in the army is a woman. The National Service Proclamation in 1994 by the present government obliges women to undertake national service. According to the proclamation, all women and men over 18 are required to do six months of military training and a year of work on national reconstruction. After the proclamation, the opposition to women’s participation came particularly from the Muslim communities for religious reasons. It has been reported that in some lowland areas, where the concentration of Muslims is high, the government was not implementing the proclamation in the same way as in the highlands.
After the border war with Ethiopia, the section of the proclamation limiting the duration of service to 18 months has not been followed. The most affected group have been women, whose length of service became lenghtened by an unlimited amount.
In the past few years, the Sawa training camp has been established as the headquarters for universal national service. All high school students, female and male, are forced to finish their last of 12 years of study in a school within Sawa. None of them has returned for further education at university once they completed national service. Only very few of them were transferred to the new colleges like Mai NefHi and other semi-military colleges which started after the University of Asmara, Eritrea’s only such institution, was closed by the government. The new colleges are administered by military officers.
Until the war of independence, Eritrea was a very traditional and patriarchal society, although things have been changing in recent years, especially in the cities. Legally and theoretically women are equal to men. In general the right to an education is free for everybody. Women who are educated have a higher status in society. They have equal opportunity in work. In the cities they can decide their own life in marriage and other social areas. They can participate in politics and other fields which were dominated by men. But due to the long tradition of male dominance, their full participation in and protection by society is still at its earliest stage.
Both the highland Christian areas and lowland Muslim areas are conservative in attitudes towards women. The father or the eldest boy is the boss of the house. If they are not there, the uncles and male relatives have power over women and girls. Women are restricted to domestic affairs like childcare and running the house. Men decide on all aspects of the social and economic life of the family, including whom the daughters should marry. Until recently, only men played a political role in the villages. Only men were judges, government officials and other functionaries. Only men were Elders, who do some arbitration and mediation in the villages.
Arming Eritrean women started during the struggle for independence. Both the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) encouraged women to become active fighters. The EPLF in particular represented this goal as part of their promotion of equality for women.
After independence National Service included and legalised women as part of the military service. Some scholars argue that the participation of women during the war for independence helped to break down the dominance of males. They point out that the status of women did get better. They got political power. There were some women appointed as ministers and to other important posts. Moreover, the first constitution of 1997 made clear the equality of women. The document reserved 30 per cent of parliamentary seats for women, apart from those who had been elected. However, the position of ordinary women largely remained as before, with all its harshest elements, especially for those in national service.
After independence, the EPLF immediately established a transitional government with all administrative posts and other key positions filled by EPLF members. At its third congress in 1994, the EPLF renamed itself the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Unlike its name, the regime was undemocratic and unjust as well as unconstitutional. In September 2001 the PFDJ crushed all opposition to it, ignoring the constitution that had been ratified in 1997.
Today the PFDJ is a ruthless dictatorship, the sole lawmaker. Eritreans are denied their basic civil and human rights, any protests always ending in arbitrary arrest, detention and torture. For all Eritreans whose vision of their new nation included peace, stability and prosperity, the scale of wars, corruption and abuse of power that followed independence was unbelievable. Eritrea today is a country where poverty and oppression are the rule. There are no independent newspapers or TV channels and all sources of information are coloured by government propaganda.
Here, then, are Ruta’s and Bisrat’s stories in their own words. Their statements have been edited for the purpose of this anthology.
Introduction by Ellen Elster and Abraham G Mehreteab. A different version of this introduction appeared in The Broken Rifle No 68, November 2005.