Where the grand majority of countries around the world acknowledge International Women’s Day in a gesture similar to Mother’s Day, giving small gifts to the women in their lives, this occasion is an official holiday in Eritrea. As the 8th of March approached, I knew I wanted to write an article about how it is celebrated in my country. I didn’t anticipate, however, the vast amount of information I would be able to gather just in regards to the number and types of events organized on this year’s IWD, not just within Eritrea but also among Eritrean communities in the Diaspora.
It has become obvious that Eritreans from around the world take International Women’s Day very seriously. Seminars, exhibitions and bazaars took place throughout the week before March 8. Eritrean communities throughout Europe, North America, the Middle East and Australia commemorated this day on weekends before and after March 8 since IWD isn’t an official holiday in their respective countries; not being able to take time off of work on the 8th, they took advantage of their weekends to recognize the indispensable role Eritrean women have played in bringing about independence, defending the nations sovereignty, and the continuous role women play in nation building.
This year, I was stunned to see IWD celebrated in such a holistic way. Pictures of Eritrean women freedom fighters, women doctors and women going to school were circulating among Facebook like never before, as various networks of Eritrean youth were practically boasting the achievements of Eritrean women. IWD has always been a big deal in Eritrea, but I don’t remember it being so widely and spectacularly celebrated in previous years. What was so special about IWD 2012?
What’s so special about IWD 2012 celebrations in Eritrea?
The answer to that question literally lies in Eritrean history, and why women participation is so highly valued. And like most things in my country, women rights weren’t given for free; instead they were highly earned.
Eritrea had many colonizers, including the Italians and the British, but it was the colonization of Ethiopia that witnessed the launch of the armed liberation struggle. This armed struggle for independence lasted 30 years, from September 1961 to May 1991. It was the brutal suppression of that time that not only saw women leaving their kitchens to take up arms, but also a drastic change in the way society viewed the role of women and their potential.
Holistic and innovative ways women celebrated IWD 2012
The National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) organized 3 days of seminars, exhibitions and bazaars at the Expo Grounds located in the capital city of Asmara for IWD 2012. One of the seminars described women’s participation during the armed struggle into three phases. Lieutenant Colonel Rigat Beimnet presented a paper describing the revolution of the Eritrean people and how the various colonizers suppressed the voice of women. She explained how under the British administration, a time where there were different political parties, that although other members of the society were somewhat able to express their ideas, women’s participation was unsatisfactory. In the second phase, where she described as being the first decade within the liberation struggle, Eritrean women started to participate remarkably by nurturing fighters, giving financial support towards the cause, and spying for information against the enemy. Still, despite their high contribution during this period, the women involved were not treated equally as men. It was during the third phase of women participation in the armed liberation struggle that the role of women changed drastically. Starting around 1970, women joined the front lines in battle. Especially within the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the movement not only secured liberation in 1991, but ensured women’s rights through rigorous awareness raising campaigns. It was the women freedom fighters who ensured equality through struggle. “Emancipation through the active participation in the social revolution’ was the theme of the day.
This year’s IWD was celebrated under the theme “Our Unity and Steadfastness: Gateway to our Bright Future.” Such a theme does not yell out to the society that they must give equal rights to women; rather it grasps the national culture that through active participation and unity, women can indeed realize their full right to participate in all aspects of their society.
In terms of legislation, Eritrean laws ensure the equal rights of all citizens despite their gender. Women have equal rights to education, health services and land, as well as equal rights in the family and equal pay for equal work, just to name a few. Traditional practices at discriminate against women, including female genital mutilation (FGM), is abolished by law. Women also have the right to seek legal and safe abortion in cases of rape and incest, or if the life of the woman is under threat.
The challenge of reaching full gender equality in Eritrea doesn’t lie in legislation and policy, but rather in deep-rooted tradition that suppresses women. Lieutenant Colonel Rigat made it clear: “Basically, ensuring women’s rights is not the question of policy but our society is still deeply dwelling in traditional thinking. Hence, in order to ensure women’s rights and equality in their participation in the society, it is very crucial that first we secure the victory that was gained after the thirty bitter years of struggle and sacrifice. We have to utilize properly the opportunities provided by the Government of Eritrea.”
There is a strong commitment and political will on the part of the government that is clearly visible in the Constitution, National Charter, and the Macro Policy of Eritrea. Monitoring of policy plans and projects for gender equality have shown successful results in all fields. However, to say that the problem of women inequality is solved or will be solved in the near future would be politically incorrect. Even in developed countries, women are often discriminated against and are fighting against gender inequality. Women’s rights have grown and have been realized by leaps and bounds compared to my grandmothers’ time. However, when it comes to the application of the legal provisions set by the government, a lot of limitations are encountered due to the fact that tradition based attitudes still exist. In other words, our culture is often discriminatory and does not allow women to have equal status or footing with men.
So how do we change culture and tradition for more gender equality? The answer lies in even more active participation in awareness campaigns and through the concrete demonstrations of active citizenship of women in all aspects of society. It seems that IWD 2012 celebrations demonstrated just this.
A few weeks before the 8th of March, in order to celebrate IWD with a meal that includes meat, right before Lent fasting, representatives of both the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) and the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS) spent the day with women at the Legal Rehabilitation Center in Hazhaz. The occasion was organized to motivate females at the rehabilitation center to develop positive thinking towards life as they too are part of the society. A lecture was organized accordingly, to create a paradigm shift that spreads awareness on how women under rehabilitation still have a positive role to play in the development of their communities.
Women participation isn’t just limited to the women’s union, but spreads across other unions, civil societies and within communities. For instance, within the youth and students union, women staff members organize themselves as members of the women’s union as well. In previous years, the members of NUEW inside of NUEYS commemorated IWD by organizing a lunch and an afternoon of dancing, poetry and drama shows. This year, however, the young women decided that instead of spending money on catering and a DJ, their money would be better spent at the orphanage. Accordingly, in the presence of the Minister of Labor and Human Welfare (who is one of four women ministers that make up a 17-member cabinet of ministers), these young women organized a day of recreation for orphans by bringing them lunch, treats and new clothes. They also furthered their commitment by telling the director of the orphanage that they are at her disposal whenever they are needed. Already they are planning to organize a special cleaning day at the orphanage due to take place within a few weeks from now.
Of course, the commemoration of IWD 2012 was not just limited to the capital city of Asmara. This day was commemorated across the country in various ways. Representatives of NUEW in the town of Mendefera visited fistula patients at the referral hospital there. Attesting to investments being made to safeguard women’s health, the women visited the patients to give them care and support. The main causes of fistula include early marriage, female genital mutilation, and the improper position of the fetus during delivery. Especially in cases of early marriage and FGM, women find themselves being victims of fistulas because of suppressive tradition. Still, even when it comes to the improper position of the fetus during delivery, visiting a health institution during pregnancy and delivery reduces the risk of fistula by 80%, still indicating the significance of the right of women to receive proper health services. Eritrea has been commended on a global level for being one of the few countries in sub-Sahara Africa who are on track with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 4 and 5, reducing child mortality and improving maternal health respectively.
In the Gash Barka region, NUEW celebrated IWD 2012 by providing incentives to middle and high school female students who showed outstanding performances both academically and in sports. This award ceremony was organized as part of a bigger program that promotes girls education and encourages competitiveness and the lifting of the self-confidence of female students.
Official responses commemorating IWD 2012
Prior to IWD 2012, the Ministry of Information released a statement about women’s emancipation. In an editorial issued on the 3rd of March, it states:
“Women’s rights in Eritrea is not a theoretical move in which human rights is referred in the country’s political program to its aesthetic values, but rather, it is a constituent of national security that has unequivocally been in effect. Gender equality—cultural legacy that has been handed down since the days of liberation struggle— is a characteristic political treasure of which the Eritrean people takes due pride. Based on this historical milieu, the question of women remains in effect amongst the building blocks of national precepts.”
As women made up more than 30% of the liberation struggle, and as half of the society they continue to be part and parcel of the development drive in all sectors, the rights of women shouldn’t just be guaranteed because Eritrea is ratified the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1995. Women’s rights must be fully realized because it guarantees even national security.
The editorial goes on to further state that:
“Any development drive that lacks full popular participation is not only gradual, but also is unwarranted. Needless to say, the entire society is invariably beneficiary once women’s all-round participation is fulfilled and the productivity of the respective society redoubles. Such a move, therefore, is a critical factor in the development of national economy and the attainment of collective vision.”
In a statement issued on the occasion of IWD 2012, the NUEW reiterated the revolve of Eritrean women to reinforce their participation in endeavors to build a developed nation in which social justice prevails, Eritrean women paid a heavy price for independence and in safeguarding the sovereignty of the country, the statement further stated, and voiced determination to reinforce rebuff against the illegal sanctions against their country.
The motive behind IWD 2012 celebrations in Eritrea
In a nutshell, the reason why IWD 2012 was celebrated in such a holistic and patriotic way has to do with the value of social justice ingrained in national culture during the liberation struggle where women’s participation and sacrifice was exemplary, toppled with the continuous role women play in nation building and in defending the country as their country is continuously threaten by neo-imperialist forces that undermine their independent stance.
In December 2009, Eritrea was sanctioned for false allegations that the government supports Islamic insurgents in Somalia. There was a second resolution further trying to sanction Eritrea issued in December 2011. The international community still remains silent when it comes to Ethiopia’s refusal to abide by the Algiers Peace Agreement signed in December 2000 and the final and binding decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission’s decision on the border issued in April 2002. The no-peace-no-war has held the people of both Eritrea and Ethiopia hostage for more than 14 years now. It is also unfortunate that about a week after IWD 2012, the Ethiopian government carried out attacks within Eritrea’s sovereign territory.
This unfortunate situation comes close to heart to all Eritrean nationals across the world, especially to women who are working so hard to develop themselves and their country. Last year, Eritrea’s economy was deemed the fastest growing economy in the world, with an economic growth rate of 17% because of the newly emerging mining sector. But before gold was discovered in various parts of Eritrea, women were donating their gold jewelry for the cause of defending the country’s sovereignty during the 1998-2000 border conflict. Can war and conflict with neo-colonial forces undermine or hamper the already priceless role women are playing in their own emancipation and the economic emancipation of their country?
The answer can be found in the way Eritreans from all parts of the world honor women’s participation with such valor. More importantly, the answer lies in how they continue to work for gender equality throughout the year, and not just on International Women’s Day. Living in the legacy of Eritrean women freedom fighters is an everyday endeavor as everyday is women’s day in Eritrea.
As a young woman very concerned about issues regarding her country, I have to play my own role before anybody else can do it for me. That means empowering myself with knowledge and by playing an active role in gender equality campaigns. Of course, I would have to have the confidence to do so. But that shouldn’t be too hard; my foremothers were confident enough to give up their lives for it.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.
Take action! This post was submitted in response to Voices of Our Future 2012 Assignments: Feature Stories.