Analysis – Never in Limelight but Suffering All the Same: Women Under Regime’s Crackdowns

Addis Abeba — Under a political arena that is filled with men in suits and men with guns, Ethiopia became the scene of a political crackdown, communal unrest, and civil wars. Another unfair spectacle of the political scene in Ethiopia is the absence of women in decision-making circles. Nevertheless, they (Women) seem to carry the burden of those political miscarriages.

These burdens include losing loved ones and caring for victims of torture or as a result of war. A lot are forced to raise children alone, either as a result of loss of partners in conflicts or to state crackdown and some are denied that as they are behind bars. Their only fault is daring to engage in politics, and as a reward, the state inflicts upon them the harshest forms of brutality. It ranges from physical and psychological abuse followed often by sexual violence.

Some like Lidia Abera lose their loved ones to the brutality of the state and after the fact are subjected to the horrors. Lidia who is originally from the Kellem Wollega zone in the Oromia region, lost her father Abera Tolesa to torture at the hands of security forces while in custody, He was held in Sankele prison. According to family members, they fled to Addis Abeba due to constant harassment by security forces, following the death of Lidia’s father. Unfortunately, security forces tracked them down and arrested Lidia on April 17, 2020, only a few days after the arrest of her brother Henok Abera.

Family members who talked to Addis Standard described how they failed to locate Lidia until she appeared on the regional broadcaster Oromia Broadcasting Network (OBN) on June 11, 2020, alleging she was a member of Aba Torbee (an assassination squad allegedly operating under the guise of the Oromo Liberation Army). A family member who in fear for their safety asked to remain anonymous, told Addis Standard, “When we saw her on TV, we were in disbelief because we didn’t think it was her. Her appearance changed. We were searching for her, we don’t know where they kept her all that time.”

“It is visible that she sustained injuries during her disappearance but she wouldn’t talk about it,” said the family member while adding that to this day she refuses to talk about the issue for fear that it will affect her mother’s mental health. The family member added, “To this day she has difficulty moving her legs. When asked about it she says it is nothing.” Lidia is still taking medications to treat complications that arose from her time in custody.

The worst crackdown that Oromia witnessed since the fall of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democracy Front (EPRDF), came shortly after the assassination of Hachalu Hundesa, many women in Oromia were arrested or became victims of state-sanctioned violence. Their stories were sidelined due to the arrest of high-profile political figures like Jawar Mohammed, and Bekele Gerba. Two women who were arrested in the crackdown are Kemila Kadir and Foziya Jundi. Both were sentenced to 16 and 15 years respectively for the responsibility for the death of people during a protest after the assassination of Hachalu Hundesa. A family member of Foziya Jundi first spoke to Addis Standard and asked for anonymity as the fear of surveillance on their family persists, saying, “The atmosphere of fear is still growing.”

Fozia, a mother of two, is currently serving 15 years in prison, but the family says her arrest and the court proceeding were unjust. Initially, she was arrested and charged with participating in the protests that broke out following the assassination of Hachalu Hundesa. Her family member recounted, “She was arrested for allegedly participating in and organizing the protest. She later was charged for using hate speech, for using the term “Neftegna” but now she is convicted of murder.” The family is confused about the entire procedure and wonders still about the turnout of events and how can someone be connected to crimes they are not even charged with.

These incidents are only mentioned in the margins of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reports and many international rights groups ignored the tragedy of women in Oromia to pursue similar violations in the northern part of the country. Investigations on the violations committed against women political prisoners are rarely carried, out and/or written on the sideline of major human rights reports.

The conflict in Oromia did not spare human rights activists such as Chaltu Asfaw, a 29-year-old Oromo women’s rights advocate. She was arrested on November 11, 2021, during Ethiopia’s nationwide state of emergency. Chaltu is serving as head of finance for a legally registered women’s empowerment NGO called Adoye.

According to her family, Chaltu was under surveillance and constant harassment by security forces, which included suspending her bank accounts. Moreover, family members disclosed to Addis Standard security forces tried to intimidate Chaltu by telling her, “Your organization should work with the government,” a proposal she refused alongside her colleagues.

After her arrest, she spent two days in a police station, and then she was transferred to Maekelawi, the infamous notorious prison the government announced its closure in the dawn of the reform. For weeks her family was denied access to visits, to be allowed visits twice a week later on. Chaltu only appeared in court after the state of emergency was lifted. The police accused her of terrorism, but no charges were filed officially. Chaltu remains for the second time in her life in prison awaiting charges.

More often women are not only targeted not only for their alleged crimes but for the alleged crimes of their family members. In May last year, the EHRC published a thorough report on law enforcement operations in the Oromia region, which highlighted family members, including women, who were imprisoned on the premise that their family members were linked to the OLA. According to the article, arrested family members are being asked to hand up those suspected of having ties to OLA. The report featured pregnant, lactating mothers and mothers with their children. One example is Amane, a lactating mother currently under arrest in Asella, Oromia for her husband’s participation in politics.

It seems unlikely that the new war declared in Oromia against the OLA, which is designated terrorist by parliament and other groups the government described as “Islamic extremists” will spare women. Previously, wives of religious clergy in West and East Hararghe, Arsi, and West Arsi as well as Bale zones fell victims to violence that targeted their spouses. Most famously the case shooting of an Imam in Asasa along with his wife and nursing child in August 2020 by security forces. AS

Editors Note: This article was originally published on Addis Standard print magazine May edition.

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