A woman’s courage to end wartime rape in Ethiopia

Out of conscience, the country’s minister for women resigns after campaigning for justice against wartime sexual violence.

An Ethiopian woman who fled the fighting in Tigray region carries her child near the Sudan-Ethiopia border.

One of the world’s most courageous people of 2021 has to be Ethiopia’s departing minister for women. On Monday, Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed resigned her post after trying to end the use of rape as a weapon of war in Ethiopia’s 11-month internal conflict. Her own government’s forces, along with rebel fighters in the Tigray region and soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, are accused by the United Nations and others of mass sexual violence against innocent civilians.

“Any situation that compromises my ethics is contrary to my convictions and values, and betraying these beliefs is a breach of trust to myself and our citizens,” she said in her resignation notice.

Last February, she boldly confirmed that rape was “undoubtedly” being committed in Tigray, the first official confirmation of such crimes. She then pressured Ethiopia’s attorney general to deliver justice. In April, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed admitted that sexual assault had been committed in the war. By August, the attorney general said more than 30 soldiers had been convicted and sentenced for rape and another 25 had been charged

But not much has been done since, perhaps the main reason for her resignation. In addition, the United States has become alarmed at the violence and humanitarian disaster in Ethiopia. On Sept. 18, President Joe Biden ordered sanctions to be imposed on Ethiopian officials if they don’t move to end the war. “I am shocked by reports of massacres, rapes and sexual assaults,” the president said in a statement. On Sept. 24, the U.S. House passed legislation that would force the administration to determine whether Ethiopia’s and Eritrea’s actions in the Tigray region constitute genocide.

Ms. Filsan was appointed as minister for women, children, and youth in 2020 because of her campaign for reconciliation among the country’s more than 90 ethnic groups. With a population of roughly 110 million, African’s second most populous country has a long history of civil strife.

She is founder of the Nabad Project (nabad means peace), which uses volunteers – dubbed peace engineers – to bring different ethnic groups together for community-level dialogue to unify Ethiopia, as she said in 2019 to the Addis Standard magazine.

“I started ... the Nabad Project to show Ethiopians that [an ethnic] Somali young female can actually bring the love, harmony, and prosperity among them,” she said.

One of her approaches was to deal with post-violence social trauma, especially for women who had been raped for their ethnicity. “I have reached multiple victims [but] I hate to use the word ‘victim’ itself because it sounds people felt helpless,” she said.

Now out of office, Ms. Filsan may again return to her private work as a “peace engineer,” or what she calls turning differences into opportunities. Her resignation was an act of conscience. It was also an act of courage to rally Ethiopians to join her to work, as she calls it, “together for good.”

Editor's note: This editorial has been updated to show additional convictions of Ethiopian soldiers for rape.

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