Georgetown Summit Calls for Urgent Response to Sexual Violence in Tigray Conflict


WASHINGTON, D.C.—April 23, 2021—Global leaders joined Tigrayan women to issue a united plea to act urgently to end coordinated rapes and human rights violations committed against Tigrayan women and girls during the armed conflict taking place in northern Ethiopia. 

“Weaponized sexual and gender-based violence is rampant, evoking the worst moments of inhumanity from Bosnia’s past to the DRC,” said Ambassador Melanne Verveer, who moderated the virtual summit  hosted by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security on Wednesday.

UN humanitarian affairs and emergency relief chief, Mark Lowcock, told the UN Security Council earlier this week that sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war in Tigray.

There is no safe place for women in Tigray,” said Fanaye Solomon, a social worker supporting the Women’s Association of Tigray. “Women have reported…the intention [of the sexual violence] was to give them HIV. Others have been told their blood is being cleansed.”

Despite the widespread sexual violence, only one medical facility in the region is currently equipped to respond to rape survivors.

“The hospitals are nonexistent which makes it very difficult for [women] to report in a timely manner, which results in unwanted pregnancy, exposure to STIs, and fistulas,” reports Solomon, adding that many women have been raped again on the long walk to receive services.

GIWPS program manager Allie Smith, who organized the virtual event, collected video messages from Tigrayan women who wished to share their stories. She reports that many women faced significant challenges sharing their stories – due to internet blackouts and security threats – but were intent on informing the international community. 

One Tigrayan woman, who asked for anonymity due to security concerns, bravely described an attack on herself and her companions: “Both of us were raped by three soldiers each. I am diagnosed as HIV negative, but I am pregnant.”

UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten called for scaling up resources and humanitarian assistance throughout Tigray, including comprehensive medical and psychosocial care for survivors of sexual violence.

“We cannot sit idle waiting for verification and ignore these multiple accounts of sexual atrocities. After all, these reports may only be the tip of the iceberg as sexual violence is always chronically underreported,” said Special Representative Patten.

She is developing a framework of cooperation with the Ethiopian government which will identify areas for UN intervention and support on conflict-related sexual violence.  

She adds that the recently announced joint investigation into all human rights violations by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission “is a welcome development and a crucial step in the fight against impunity, although it is absolutely critical that it be conducted in a timely manner…before the evidence trail goes cold.” The investigative team must also have full and unimpeded access, and specifically address sexual violence.

The UN Security Council had yet to act at the time of the conference, although they issued a press statement on Thursday expressing “their deep concern” and calling for investigations; scaled-up humanitarian response and unfettered humanitarian access, and a restoration of normalcy. We hope this can lead to great action, both on humanitarian needs and an end to hostilities. 

Ambassador Geraldine Byrne-Nason, Permanent Representative of Ireland to the UN, said that “Ireland firmly believes that the Council should speak publicly and with one voice on the situation in Ethiopia.”

She pressed for accountability for human rights abuses, not least sexual violence, during her remarks at the Georgetown event.

“Regrettably, the world over, impunity for gender and sexual-based violence has been a hallmark of armed conflict, and we want to see an end to that.  All perpetrators of these crimes against women and girls, including in Tigray, must be brought to justice, whatever their affiliation. The Ethiopian authorities have committed to this, and that is welcome, very welcome,” said Ambassador Geraldine Byrne-Nason.

She added that “We need to see unhindered humanitarian access including the provision of those life-saving services for victims and survivors.  [The Ethiopian government] has committed to providing unfettered access for humanitarian support.  We welcome that.  We need to see it implemented on the ground and urgently.”

Representatives from CARE joined the summit from Ethiopia to discuss their critical work on the ground.

The virtual event closed with urgent calls for action, including the need for more funds to support survivors and humanitarian action.

When history looks back on this painful episode as part of the long battles fought on the bodies of women and girls from Bosnia to Rwanda, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, we will rightly be asked, what did we do to honor our commitments?” concluded Special Representative Patten.

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Sarah Rutherford

Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace & Security seeks to promote a more stable, peaceful, and just world by focusing on the important role women play in preventing conflict and building peace, growing economies, and addressing global threats like climate change and violent extremism. We engage in rigorous research, host global convenings, advance strategic partnerships, and nurture the next generation of leaders. Housed within the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, the Institute is headed by the former U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, Melanne Verveer.