Woman: a mother of man, a sister of a boy, a wife of a husband, a candle of society, a bearer of life and humanity. Yet, women are kept painfully silent. Last week, the streets of many western capitals were stormed by demonstrations calling for a stop to violations and discrimination against women.
Beneath the peaceful demonstrations of the many victims of violence and discrimination, we see the horrific barbarity and paradox of modernity. The material prosperity of the western world was built on the ashes of spiritual and moral annihilation of the many oppressed peoples. Among the many great contradictions of western modernization is the large capital accumulation in the face of spiritual and moral destruction. Although they have already reached the edges of modernity, women are still confined to a depersonalizing darkness. Many problems still persist, whether they concern jobs, equal payment, women’s status in legal codes, or even just at the level of everyday life. Many women, including western women, still come after men.
The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”(UN 2014: 73). Numerous studies have shown us that with regard to gender-related killings, discrimination, and violence toward women, the world has an ugly record.
Since the establishment of the United Nations, equality between men and women has been among the most fundamental aims. The Charter of the United Nations sets out as one of its goals “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women.” Furthermore, Article 1(3) of the Charter stipulates that one of the purposes of the United Nations is to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms “without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” This prohibition of discrimination based on sex is repeated in Articles 13 and 55. Women’s rights have been at the heart of a series of international conferences. The Beijing declaration of 1995 was one of the great world conferences, focusing on areas concerning the implementation of women’s human rights and setting out an agenda for women’s empowerment. In 2000, the international community agreed to eight time-bound development goals to be achieved by 2015, including a goal on gender equality, empowerment of women, and reduction of maternal mortality. SDGs which officially began implementation in January 2016 to address urgent global challenges over the next 15 years included the issue of women. Goal 5 of the SDGs aims to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” which requires eliminating all forms of discrimination and violence against them, including harmful practices.
Under human rights law, the state is not only forbidden from directly violating the human rights of women but is also required to ensure that right. Eritrea, a newly independent country in the Horn of Africa, has been working to deter, prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators who commit violence against women. The EPLF’s understanding of women is progressive. During the long struggle for independence “The EPLF believed that the social emancipation of women could not be seen separately from the question of the emancipation of the entire society” (Worku Zerai 1994: WS- 65). The correlation of women’s emancipation with that of societal emancipation was similarly adopted by many revolutionaries in Africa. One of Africa’s most prominent revolutionaries, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, stated that “there is no true social revolution without the liberation of women. May my eyes never see and my feet never take me to a society where half the people are held in silence” (as quoted in Prairie 2007: 372).
The task of nation-building requires the participation of all, regardless of their race, ethnicity or gender. Speaking on the role of women in national life, Stein urges, “The nation…doesn’t simply need what we have. It needs what we are.” In Eritrea, too, the question of women is seen as a question of human rights first and their valuable contribution to the nation-building process second. Unlike the development of others which favors some and pushes others to the margins, development in Eritrea is not a unilateral progress. The women of Eritrea are present everywhere to claim their place and give their great support, knowledge and skill to the service of the people. Beyond their practical participation at work place, they are valued, respected and admired members of the society.
Since the eruption of the Eritrean revolution and particularly the emergence of the EPLF, various barriers and harmful practices including, among others, forced marriage, female circumcision, female exclusion from land and other property rights, and legal and traditional barriers have been rooted out. Upon independence, the Government of Eritrea instituted new amendments to the Civil Code which fundamentally altered the status of women in Eritrea. Some of these amendments include:
1. Women’s legal rights to own and inherit land,
2. Raising the legal minimum age of marriage from 15 years to 18 years,
3. Men and women in marriage have the same rights within the family,
4. Practices such as dowry and bride price are prohibited (Tsehainesh Tekle 1998: 4).
The government also prohibited other discriminatory laws and harmful practices that have long served to hinder women. Previously, under-age marriage caused great misery to girls. Now this has been remedied by law. Article 522(1) orders that “a man and woman who have not attained the full age of eighteen years may not contract marriage.” Article 567 of the new legal code of Eritrea also points out that “the spouses shall cooperate in the interest of family, on the basis of equal rights and responsibilities of both sexes…” In this matter, all traces of traditional and legal prejudice against women have been eliminated. The government understands that the authenticity and the future of the country depend on women. They are now fighting on every front against diseases, hunger, poverty, foreign invaders, and illiteracy. Eritrean women are really freer, more liberated, more respected, or entrusted citizens. “Here [In Eritrea], women are symbols of sacrifice as well as representatives of national modernity” (Mason 2001: 3).
“The prime objective of nation-building is to leave behind a society at peace with itself and its Neighbors” (Cheryl 2008: 8). Research reveals that there is a correlation between gender development and stability. Strong performance on gender measurements correlates closely with high stability. Eritrea has been portrayed as an island of peace in the stormy Horn of Africa. This peace and stability does not simply arise from having strong police and authority. Rather, progressive approaches, and the inclusive and participatory policy of the government has helped offset agony and resentment arising out from marginalization. The strong performance on gender parity of Eritrea has no doubt positively influenced the peace and stability prevailing in the country.
Gender equality is not just a women’s issue, it is also a development issue. Women’s economic empowerment is essential for economic development, growth, and poverty reduction not only because of the income it generates, but also because it helps to break the vicious cycle of poverty. It is impossible to think about development and nation-building unless the condition of women is improved. Eritrea, well aware of the impossibility for a bird to fly on only one wing, has carefully engaged women in all aspects of development. Regarding education, the country has achieved tremendous progress. The National Education Policy (2003) states that “Education in Eritrea is a fundamental human right and a lifelong process by which all individuals are given opportunities to attain their potential as all rounded citizens” (pp. 4). It further states that “The government shall work towards the elimination of gender disparity at all levels of the education system. Sustainable socio-economic development cannot be realized without the full participation of women, which comprise half of the population” (pp. 6).
Women are the indispensible part of a society. Education has been recognized as an essential agent of social change and development in any society. Hence, to think of harmonious development without educating women is impossible.
Beyond their attainment of individual rights, girls’ education has also proven to be a remarkably effective catalyst for social development and economic growth in Eritrea.
Eritrea, a country guided by a policy of social justice and self-reliance, has no greater aim than ensuring justice and has no one other force to look to than its own citizens for progress and improvement. The development strategy of the country has aimed at improving the socio-economic conditions of the population. In Eritrea, the rights of women are enshrined in law and are increasingly respected in the society. The issue of women is a major social issue. The National Charter of Eritrea stipulates that “Eritrea cannot modernize without the full participation of Eritrean women… The solidarity between women and men, which did miracles during the struggle, should become the basis for the new Eritrea.” As it was envisaged in the National Charter, Eritrea is a country where both genders increasingly live in equality, harmony, peace, and prosperity.