The world has watched as long-standing political and ethnic rivalries in Ethiopia have turned into active conflict and horrific mass atrocities in the northern region of Tigray.
In November 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) into Tigray to quell alleged uprisings by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). 1 This escalation of hostilities has resulted in one of the most vicious conflicts in recent memory, marked by ethnic-targeted killings, destruction of crops, denial of food, and brutal sexual violence.
For months, ENDF troops aided by Eritrean soldiers have tortured, sexually assaulted, killed, and displaced Tigrayan civilians. The TPLF has also perpetrated some human rights abuses. Although TPLF troops assumed control over the capital Mekelle and Prime Minister Ahmed recently declared a ceasefire, the lull in fighting was short-lived.
On August 6th government aligned militias resumed attacks on Tigrayans and by August 10th, Prime Minister Ahmed called on all capable Ethiopians to stop Tigrayan insurgents “once and for all.” Already in less than a year, violence trauma and widespread famine have devastated virtually all communities in Tigray. More than 6 million people are affected by the conflict, and 2.2 million have been displaced. Of these, almost 1 million are women and girls internally displaced within the boundaries of Ethiopia. There are also approximately 20,000 Tigrayan women and girls who have fled Ethiopia altogether and now live as refugees in Sudan.
But now, when so many displaced women and girls have survived sexual violence and need help the most, the humanitarian system is failing them. Although some form of humanitarian relief is believed to be reaching about 75 percent of Tigray, the assistance provided is scant and wholly insufficient relative to the needs. Additionally, the regularity of assistance and access is unclear. Further complicating the ability to provide assistance to those in crisis, the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is more than 50 percent short of the $854 million it requested to mount an adequate response. Displaced Tigrayans do not have enough food, shelter, medical care (including mental health care), hygiene kits, or water.
Longstanding experience in multiple humanitarian crises around the world have built a strong evidence base that scarcity of resources combined with inadequate safeguards contribute to a profoundly heightened risk of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA). And the lack of dedicated prevention measures and accountability for abuses by perpetrators of SEA exacerbates those risks. Given the severity of the crisis and the impediments to rolling out a full humanitarian response, the humanitarian needs of civilians will persist, and SEA will be a constant risk. Indeed, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power noted that many veteran humanitarian aid actors have said that “the nature of this conflict, the combination of gender-based violence, widespread conflict, and the threat of starvation and famine has led to the worst humanitarian conditions they have ever witnessed.” The stakes are high. Therefore, all organizations and agencies working in Tigray must understand SEA, mitigate risks that increase its likelihood, and commit to appropriate and timely responses when SEA occurs. Among the risks that increase the likelihood of SEA are scarcity of resources, restricted humanitarian access, and the high number of female-headed households.