Young Eritrean women like Commander Belainesh have fought in two wars, and been pioneers for women’s rights. From the early 1970s, tens of thousands of girls from poor, conservative Muslim and Christian families were enlisted by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and integrated into the ranks as bona fide fighters. For 35 years they fought on the front line and were treated as equals, serving as platoon commanders, tank drivers, barefoot doctors and engineers. The EPLF woman fighter came to personify progress and liberation from oppressive traditions. But from 2002 on, thousands of them were demobilized. Now they face life in villages where girls must be circumcised, wives must obey their husbands, and children be married off as young as 12. For Commander Belainesh, it’s time to decide whether her dreams of liberation have failed – and it’s time to move on.
Across most of the world, women are having to fight for their share of progress. But it’s all too easy to fall behind. In the Horn of Africa women fought a war to liberate their country. Now some must decide whether to liberate themselves. Women in Eritrea are often depicted as Africa’s most liberated sisterhood. They fought on the frontlines in the country’s 30-year war of independence. But in Eritrea’s poor rural heartland, woman’s liberation is a war still being fought.
Former soldier Belainesh Seyoum works for the National Union of Eritrean Women, the female arm of the liberation movement. Much of what she fought for has come true. The country won its war for independence in 1991. New laws have been passed, granting women the right to vote, own land and choose their own husband – not to mention work in any job they like.
Belainish says most women in rural Eritrea are illiterate, they are unemployed and they are very poor. ‘They work in the field but they can’t plough it, it is the man who ploughs it, so they don’t decide on the production.’ Even the women themselves believe that the man can decide. They believe that girls should only be given basic education. Laws forbid child marriage but in many villages girls are still married in their early teens – or younger.
Ancient practices that can be harmful to women date back centuries. So far back that women themselves have trouble seeing their lives any other way. Leyla Adem, one of three sisters in the film, is a 22 year-old mother of two girls. Belainesh’s Women’s Union led the fight to outlaw circumcision and female genital mutilation. But Leyla doesn’t hesitate to tell Belainesh that her three-year old daughter Ettehal has been circumcised.
Leyla explains that if a girl is circumcised she becomes a well-developed girl and on the other side she can marry, she can get a husband. Soon Leyla’s youngest daughter Menal will have her first birthday. Tradition dictates that she too must be circumcised. But this time Leyla has doubts.
‘I’m not sure what I will do. Circumcising girls is part of our tradition, but recently people have been warning us about the dangers of circumcision and there is also a government law against it,’ she says.
But so far the law isn’t widely enforced. According to the Women’s Union, more than nine out of ten women in Muslim and Christian communities here are circumcised. That’s despite all the dangers known to experts back in the city.
According to Berhane Haite of the Ministry of Health, girls are often circumcised when they are still babies. Sometimes there is a lot of bleeding, and sometimes infection, because it’s done with unsterilised instruments. Sometimes children even die. There’s a campaign of persuasion to convince people of the need for change. Belainesh is hoping Leyla will attend the next session.
The second sister, Amina Ased Awed, is a 35 year-old mother of six. She’s just discovered she is pregnant again. Amina has been lucky. Nationally there’s about a one in 130 chance of women dying when they give birth. In the countryside it’s much higher. One problem is the traditional birth attendants, who don’t use disinfectants, and use their equipment for more than one woman. That means an increased risk of HIV/AIDS.
But Amina has a choice. In some villages like hers, medically trained midwives are now offering services to pregnant women in their homes. There’s even a small hospital – with a maternity ward and trained obstetrics staff. But the local midwife explains that many women refuse to come to the hospital.
Amina says: ‘If I go to hospital they will unstitch me but after the birth they refuse to do the re-stitching.’ Berhane Haite of the Ministry of Health explains: ‘One of the types of circumcision is just sewing the labia minora, or labia majora, so it’s so narrow that the child cannot go out. So sometimes even the traditional birth attendees have to tear it, you know, they have to cut it. And when they cut it it’s not sterile, it’s just crude things like a broken glass or something. So infection can happen again, bleeding can happen again. So it is really a lifelong suffering.’
Amina has had six kids at home and knows the dangers. But home birth does means she can be restitched – as tradition demands. For her, it’s a tough choice.
The long war and continued border conflict with Ethiopia have had a devastating effect on Eritrea’s economy. In the countryside men left their families – never to return. The third sister, Howa Mahmud Haj, is 29. She supports four daughters on her own. But her neighbours disapprove because she leaves her children to go to the market every Tuesday, to sell tea.
What Howa earns at the market is barely enough to feed her kids. But now she has an opportunity to grow food for her family. A government irrigation scheme captures water during the rainy season. It’s financed by the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, or IFAD. It’s turning more than 1,000 hectares of arid land into irrigated green fields. The potential is enormous. Sorghum and millet yields alone could quadruple.
The challenge has been to find farmers to do the work. Abla Benhammouche, IFAD’s Eritrea Programme Manager estimates about ten per cent of economically active people are serving in the army. But there are thousands of poor women like Howa
who need to feed their children and find a way to earn an income. So it was decided that 30 to 40 per cent of the land must be given to women.
Howa says a hectare would provide enough food for her family. And there’d be enough left over to sell in the local market. But not being a man, Howa is faced with a dilemma. In her culture women aren’t permitted to plough land. With the rainy season just three months away, Howa has to decide: will she respect traditional practices or take the land?
But a way round the problem is found. Women aren’t supposed to plough the land, but for the first year at least, the government will loan her money to pay for a man to plough it for her. Belainish predicts what the three women will decide: ‘Leyla – I believe she will not circumcise her second daughter. And Amina – I’m not 100 per cent certain she’ll deliver in the health centre, maybe 65 per cent will deliver in the health centre but 35 per cent I’m not sure. And the third one, Howa, she has a cultural pressure but she will break away because she has to come out of poverty to send her children to school as well as to feed them. Traditional attitudes do not change within a day or a month or a year. It needs a lot of time to change in order to transform women to a better life.’
The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has a major programme in Eritrea.
The World Health Organisation has published a Factsheet on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).