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Rooms for Improvement in Political and Economic Participation: NUEW Assessing 25 Years

Engaging women and girls in socio-economic and political life is vital for the promotion of gender equality. In Eritrea the question of gender has been in the agenda as a combination of what freedom fighters achieved during the thirty years of armed struggle. In June, Asmara hosted the NUEW National Symposium which looked at the past 25 years of all sectors of activities with the participation of key stakeholders. It was a successful program and as a follow up, NUEW and its partners engaged in research and assessment at zoba level.


Local governments of all zobas, ministries, and civil society groups worked on papers with a focus on gender, and particularly on the role of women, challenges and opportunities in each region. The studies covered education, health, economic empowerment, political participation, micro-credit programs, land tenure, agriculture and organizational development of the Union.

Since March 2017, a committee made up of volunteer professionals from different sectors, both men and women, were chosen to do the task of coordinating and guiding researchers nationwide. Covering all regions allowed NUEW and its partners to have a deeper understanding of the updated facts on the ground. The research undertakings and assessment meetings came to an end with the last assessment organized in the Central Region, at Asmara Town Hall, on December 7-8, 2017.

“The idea was to have an overview to ensure that the strategic work plan will be in line with the information collected at zoba level”, said Mrs. Tekea Tesfamichael, Head of the NUEW. Assessing the last 25 years was a continuity of previous assessments. However, this year’s assessment put greater focus on the activities of all sectors through research and recommendations. Through collaboration, the idea was to build up a stronger sense of ownership of the question of gender and, particularly women and girls, in all layers of society. “Looking at past performances and the remaining challenges allow us to frame our future strategy and move at a higher speed”, said Mrs. Tekea.

According to Mrs. Alem Belay, NUEW Central Region, the assessment in the Central region included 16 subzones where 47.7% of the residents are registered members of NUEW. There were 28,528 registered members between 1991 and 1995. By 2016, the number rose to 71,633. In 35 health facilities in the Central region, women account for 74% of the workforce. In every subzone health committees are established and women volunteers account for 75.5%. In terms of economic empowerment, about 409 women were beneficiaries of the donkey distribution project in the region.

In terms of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), the number of girls who suffer from FGM/C is now close to zero compared to 99% in 1995 in the region. Women account for 66% of the workforce at the Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare Central region’s branch. However lower educational qualification remains higher among women.

This broad overview of gender balance in different sectors in the central region may be positive for some sectors while many challenges remain especially in terms of political participation, higher education qualification, and high income jobs. The Central region’s findings can be seen in all the other zobas.

In terms of education, the participation of girls remains positive but in some areas, especially in remote ones, there are disparities. Nonetheless, during the last assessment meeting, stakeholders agreed to focus on some specific areas. Political participation, women in trade and industry, labor rights, maternity-related services and land tenure were also given stronger focus.

With regard to education, the Government’s policies of “Free Education for All” has been successfully implemented nationwide. Nonetheless, young girls continue to face challenges in pursuing their studies and the conditions may be a cause of drop out. In fact, some areas lack proper sanitation and hygiene facilities forcing young school girls to stay home during their menstrual period. In some other areas, pursuing high school requires students to go to other towns and many parents prefer to keep the girls at home rather than send them away putting them at risk of child marriage. Besides the numerous vocational training given to young girls and women need to be evaluated to see their effect.

More than 50% of College students are female, but this is not reflected in post graduate studies. Actually, challenges remain here as well. Many young graduates in their twenties are educationally equipped to work; however, their expectations are often not met. “Our colleges should be the producers of economic agents including women”, said Mrs. Tekea. In terms of labor rights, for instance, despite the law of equal pay for equal job. Professional women would be downgraded at work just because they are women and few are given managerial positions. Those with lower education qualification continue to be the majority of the workforce. More than 80% of women workers are in lower income jobs of an average monthly income ranging between 400 and 700 Nakfa in the Central region. Those jobs are mostly in production line which require hard physical work that impacts on their health. Often, a female worker in an industry tends to have health problems by the age of 45 she may not be able to work any longer and the spillover effect will be a household hit by poverty.

Moreover, female workers are vulnerable and they are the first to pay the consequences of any economic changes or recession. “Many female workers are confined to three month contracts, which put them at greater risk in losing the job or they wouldn’t even dare to ask for a legal contract”, said Mr. Yosief Tesfay, Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare-Central region branch. Such situations have pushed many women towards informal jobs or some decide to go abroad to seek employment, especially in Gulf countries. According to the statistics of the MLHW (2016), about 57 Eritrean women are currently working as housemaids in Bahrain, 800 of them are in Kuwait and 5 work as security personnel in Dubai. Those low-income jobs put the women at great risk where their rights are often violated.

Concerning employment and educational opportunities, further challenges remain confining women to stay at home despite holding a diploma or a particular professional competence. “Women in their late 20s who have completed their studies and are ready to work and also have a family can do both. However, the situation doesn’t help them to do so”, said Mrs. Tekea. The President referred to the lack of proper maternity benefits and day care facilities in the workplace, especially in the ministries. After giving birth, a young mother is given a one-month maternity leave that is much lower than in many other countries, and once they start working, the majority couldn’t afford to pay for a babysitter. As a result, many choose to stay at home and raise their children. The latter is also influenced by culture where a working mother isn’t seen as successful as the one who stays at home to raise her child. It is a paradox that young women are often told to be successful at school and then, they are told to be good mothers and stash their diplomas in the closet.

In terms of political participation, women are active in local committees related to health and maternal and child health, for instance. However, at higher level in local administrations, their participation remains low. In 1993, 12 women out of 56 were members of the 1st National Assembly, only 4 out of 30 in the second one in 1995, 18 out of 74 in 1997 and 19 out of 64 in the 4th National Assembly of 2004. Political participation continues to be an area where women are underrepresented. “If a woman isn’t present in political decision, how can gender equality be promoted?” said the President of NUEW.

Proclamation No. 86/1996 on the establishment of Local Government stipulates that 30% of the members have to be women; yet many areas are not following the rule. Many women would choose to elect a male administrator rather than females for reasons which are deeply rooted within the society’s cultural belief that a woman isn’t capable to lead. “To get towards the vision of social justice, equal participation is key and the lack of strong presence of women in the political sphere will require further studies nationwide”, said Mrs. Tekea.

According to the UN Women (2017), the participation of women in local governments can make a difference. For instance in local councils of India which are led by women, the number of drinking water projects were 62% higher than which are led by men. Globally, in January 2017, about 18.3% of governments’ ministers were women (UN Women 2017). In Eritrea, there is room for improvement particularly at local administrations where cultural beliefs continue to put barriers to those women. “We had more women leading in the first few years following Eritrea’s independence but through time, the trend shows that we are going behind time”, stated NUEW’s President.

The participation of women in the economic and political spheres should be given special attention in drafting the strategic plan. Assessing the achievement and ongoing challenges in all zobas gave a broad understanding of the situation of gender equality, the role of women and girls in society and the rooms for improvement and areas for strengthening organizational development of the Union including better data management. Clearly, Eritrean national policies promote equal rights without gender discrimination. But their implementation requires uprooting cultural constraints to ensure the prevalence of social justice for all.

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