Each month thousands of men, women, and children flee Eritrea as a result of grave violations of human rights committed by the Eritrean government, including religious persecution and indefinite mandatory military service. The reasons women leave Eritrea are multiple and often interconnected. Women are not only at extreme risk of sexual violence within the military and in military training camps, during national service and in prison, but also in society at large: in their marriages, and in their communities, where violence against women is perpetrated in an environment of impunity. In addition, the lack of genuine rule of law leaves women and girls unable to seek recourse to justice. The militarization of society, the abundance of weapons in society and the underlying traditional views of women’s place and role increases the risk of violence.
Exemption from National Service is usually granted to women and girls who are married, pregnant or have children. As a result, many young girls chose or are encouraged by their family into marriage or motherhood to avoid completing their education at Sawa Military Training Camp, where all students complete their 12th year of education. Family structures have been disintegrated with multiple members of the family either in military service or left the country. For periods of many years, spouses, parents and children have little or no contact with each other outside of their limited periods of home leave. With limited economic opportunities for women outside national service and with key wage-earners conscripted families struggle to come by. Women within the national service are released after marriage or becoming pregnant, but are rarely granted formal discharge papers. As a result, they cannot access education opportunities, access to land or State-sanctioned employment. Often, women do not have access to travel permits, severely restricting their freedom of movement. Where conscripts are able to desert, relatives who remain behind are frequently punished in lieu. Wives and mothers, including with infants and young children, have been arrested or imprisoned for periods of up to several weeks and sometimes months or have been forced to pay a fine after their husbands or children deserted the national service or left the country. Many women have seen their husbands taken away without being informed why or where they were taken and if they are alive. The contradictory position women find themselves in sees them with little choice but to leave the country.
A growing number of pregnant women, mothers and their children from Eritrea leave their home countries to neighbouring countries, North Africa, the Middle East or Europe. Women carry their unborn babies in their wombs or their new-born infants and children in their arms as they cross land and sea borders in search of asylum and safety, travelling through countries whose governments and societies are hostile towards them and cross unofficial borders that have become increasingly closed off or fraught with violence. Along the migration route, women face (sexual) violence from law enforcement officials, people smugglers and human traffickers, fellow travellers. Women, whether living under severe deprivation and dispossession in Eritrea, moving across borders, or rebuilding their lives in countries of transit and settlement, are subject to attacks against their sexuality and bodily rights and are caught up in multiple, often interlocking, patriarchal structures of power and oppression. It is however important to remember that there is no universal women’s experience – or men for that matter (Abu-Lughod 1993: 4). Women have different ways of reacting to violence and displacement. Displaced women in general, survivors of human trafficking and rape in particular, are people who are forced to deal with abnormal and traumatic situations, rather than the socially constructed – and widely used – image of women as victims and needy. Women should not be defined by what is done to them, but rather by what they do as social actors’ (Sherene Razack 1999: 98). The experiences of displaced women are tremendously complex. Numerous aspects of the experiences of displaced women have both positive and negative aspects and both gains and losses for an individual and opens up new possibilities and opportunities, for example for the renegotiation of conventional hierarchies build around age, gender, or socio-economic class (Hart 2014:389).
Women’s organisations like WILPF can and should operate as allies to refugee community organisations like the Network of Eritrean Women on various levels. First of all, by continuing to demand a safe passage to Europe for people seeking asylum, rather than the increasingly closed off sea and land borders which make migration routes more dangerous and life-risking. Secondly, by demanding fair and transparent asylum policies around Europe based on facts and lived experiences rather than government-commissioned export reports that fulfill the wishes to curb migration. Thirdly, on both an national and EU level governments should be held accountable for infringing of human rights and international laws by “partnering” with dictatorial leaders such as Isayas Afewerki in Eritrea and Omar Al-Bashir in Sudan only to stop people from leaving their countries of origin all together or by making it easier to deport people.
Laurie Lijnders is a social anthropologist whose work has focused on human trafficking, asylum and border policies and violence along the migration route from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East and Europe, with a particular focus on the experiences of women. She conducted research in urban settings and refugee camps in Israel, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. Currently, she is a PhD candidate with the Centre for Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London where she explores how experiences of displacement influence motherhood and family-making.