Inequalities between men and women and discrimination against women have been a historical reality all over the world. To correct this social ill, initiatives focusing on increasing the economic, political, social, and educational strength of women have been carried out. If we look back to our society, traditionally we find that very few women took active participation due to the limitations of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Women didn’t raise their voice in the family and the wider society. But this deleterious traditional attitude was changed during the Eritrean struggle for independence.
Eritrean women participated in the national liberation struggle and they changed the submissive roles to the extent of actually engaging in physical combat. History tells us that women constituted more than 30% of the EPLF. The EPLF believed that the emancipation of women could not be seen separately from the emancipation of the entire society. Thus, great emphasis was given to their participation in the national democratic revolution. In November 1979, Eritrean women held their first congress in Arag, under the slogan “Emancipation through equal participation in the struggle” and “a revolution cannot triumph without the conscious participation of women”. The National Union of Eritrean Women as a national organization, has carried the responsibility to mobilize Eritrean women to participate in the armed struggle for national liberation and the maintenance of independence and social justice. This revolutionary experience impacted the nature of the new government. When the EPLF transformed from a liberation movement into a government and a broad mass-based political organization, it didn’t change its outlook.
A review of all the official documents of the EPLF and the Government of Eritrea attest to the paramount role of women in the liberation and construction of the nation. The EPLF incorporated women’s rights and their participation in its political program and worked strenuously to implement it. In the second congress of the EPLF, it was stated that “Since the participation of all nationals in the process of liberating and developing Eritrea is an imperative task, the participation of women, who make up half of our society, must be given great attention” (1987: 38). Article 4 of the national democratic program of the EPLF granted social rights of many groups including women. The aim of the program, as outlined under the section of women’s rights, is to “assure women full rights or equality with men in politics, the economy and social life as well as equal pay for similar work” (Ibid 124). The EPLF has introduced and improved social laws, formed institutions and has achieved tangible results which further simplified the task.
The National Charter of Eritrea, issued at the third congress of the EPLF in 1994, also enshrined the principle of non-discrimination based on sex and requires the state to take positive action. In the National Charter of Eritrea, we find a continued determination: “We are striving to make Eritrea a country of justice and equality where dignity and basic human rights are respected. In Eritrea, social rights of women… must be respected.” The National Charter of Eritrea has treated the issue of women as a major social issue and maintains that a society that does not respect the rights and equality of women cannot be a truly liberated society.
In order for Eritrean women to continue the journey which they started during the revolution, education, training and health provisions must be accessible to them. To bring about economic development and social justice, we should ensure equal participation of women in all sectors. Eritrea has drafted a gender policy and strategy in recognition of the fact that sustainable development cannot be realized without the full and equal participation of girls at all levels of education. The educational policy of the government is designed in a way to cure previous mistakes. The education of girls and women, in particular, was regarded as one of the most important pre-requisites and a condition for the successful transformation of the society. The national education policy of Eritrea also works 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. As a result, ensuring girls’ full and equal access to and achievement in basic, secondary and tertiary education is one of Eritrea’s major education policies. Above all, girl and women’s access to education is not a privilege rather it is a fundamental right. According to a UN report from 2013, there were still 757 million adults unable to read and write, of whom two-thirds were women. However, this unpleasant fact of discrimination and deprivation has no place in Eritrea. In Eritrea, the state “guarantees this right to all its citizens, regardless of gender and ethnicity” (Ravinder 2005: 2).
Women’s emancipation is secured only through genuine participation and representation in all aspects of the society. Women are less represented in politics globally. According to a UN report, the proportion of seats held by women in parliament rose to 23% in 2016. In our case women constitute 22.2% of cabinet ministers. We have a long way to go to eliminate the gender gap as depicted in social, political, intellectual, cultural or economic spheres. Promoting increased women’s political leadership and gender equality are development issues, human rights issues, and a moral obligation. A political system where half of the population does not fully participate limits the opportunity for women to contribute to and benefit from national development. Even though the participation of women in community court and local administration has registered a phenomenal increase, the political participation of women still lags behind as compared to that of males.
Traditionally, the problem arises in both politics as a practice and politics as an academic discipline. Usually politics is regarded as a field reserved for men. When considering politics as a discipline and a practice they reinforce each other. Today, more women have been enrolled in the Department of Political Science and International Relations (PSIR) at the College of Arts and Social Science located in Adi Keih. According to departmental records, currently women occupy 51% of the students enrolled in the department. This enrolment would mean that the number of women earning degrees in PSIR will be equivalent to that of men. In addition, there is another area of continuity that expands the opportunity of women’s participation in national issues – national service. In Eritrea, national service is required of all young men and women alike.
Another area that needs consideration in women’s emancipation is the availability of legal protection. Violence against women or the threat of violence in the private and public spheres remain key limiting factors to women’s participation in national development. It is well known that the vulnerability of women and girls acutely increases during conflicts. Their gendered roles hinder their escape from danger Thanks to the prevailing peace and stability, Eritrean women are among the most freely living beings in a turbulent region and continent. Globally, women have been targets of sexual violence. Armed groups increasingly use sexual violence as a weapon of war. Unlike the anarchist and recalcitrant armies seen in many countries, the Eritrean army, known for its discipline, is regarded as protector and guardian of the people. Today rapes and sexual assaults are daily occurrences in the world. In many countries there are laws allowing the perpetrator to walk free on reaching some form of “settlement”, including by marrying the victim. In Eritrea, rape is among the highest punishable crimes and it was depicted in the legal code unequivocally. For example Art. 108 about crimes against humanity ordered among many things rape as a crime against humanity. Art. 307 (1) also ordered that “A person who commits a sexual assault against another person…is guilty of rape… punishable with a definite term of imprisonment of not less than 7 years and not more than 10 years.”
The role of women in poverty alleviation also received currency elsewhere. Women are among the highly affected by poverty. Poverty is not only about monetary deficiency there is also social poverty. Poverty is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon with cultural, economic, legal and political factors. Gender inequality is a cause of poverty. Efforts made to address poverty cannot bear fruit without due regard to gender equality. In Eritrea, women have wide access to financial services through specialized micro-finance institutions.
Generally, reduction of poverty is dependent not only on economic policies but also on social policies that can ensure sustainable human development and social equity. Eritrea codified laws that guarantee women’s and girls’ property and inheritance rights and eliminate gender inequality in employment. In Eritrea, there is no single position that cannot be attained by women. Women now have the legal right to own and inherit land, and men and women have the same rights within the family. Equal access to and control over economic resources and opportunities, education and training, social and legal protection, freedom from the risk of violence and other measures have supported Eritrean women to become motivated and independent. Today, cultural factors that limit women’s rights and engagement in production are weakened by the comprehensive positive measures taken by the government. To support, educate and medicate women is the proven means of alleviating poverty.
Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals aims to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” The Government of Eritrea is working tirelessly to empower women and girls to reach their full potential. All forms of discrimination and violence against women are virtually eliminated and women enjoy equal participation with men. Just as our revolution would not have succeeded without the heroic participation of women, transforming Eritrea into a prosperous nation is impossible without the full and conscious participation of women. During the struggle, the EPLF transformed Eritrean women into formidable fighters, and now the country is working to support Eritrean women, allowing them to facilitate the national development of Eritrea.