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Eritrea’s Journey to Gender Equality

By :- Simon Weldemichael

Eritrea has come a long way in its struggle to ensure gender equality and women’s empowerment. The Government’s commitment to women’s rights and women’s empowerment has been demonstrated through favorable policy instruments, including the Macro Policy, National Charter, National Gender Action Plan, Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, the Constitution of the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW), National Education Policy, that it has promulgated and international agreements it has ratified.

In conformity with global standards and long adhered principle, the government recognizes that gender equality is crucial for sustainable national development. And over the past decade, Eritrea has made progress in the advancement of gender equality and empowerment of women in all spheres. Eritrea’s journey to greater and genuine gender equality began during the struggle for independence. The EPLF has undertaken major social, economic, cultural and political reforms that helped in transforming its members and the entire population. The organization encouraged Eritrean women to participate in the national liberation movement and worked to change their role in society.

The EPLF believed that the social emancipation of women could lead to the emancipation of the entire society. One of the objectives of the struggle, as outlined in the first National Democratic Program (1977), is to “assure women full rights of equality with men in politics, economy and social life as well as equal pay for equal work.” In an attempt to achieve such a revolutionary vision, the EPLF rectified all reactionary laws and replaced them with progressive laws that respect the rights of women. Eritrean women began to be organized and in November 1979, the National Union of Eritrean Women was formed. The EPLF was so progressive that women made up about 30-35 per cent of its freedom fighters.

The commitment of freeing women from domestic confinement, increasing their productive capabilities and achieving greater gender equality continued with renewed vigor after Eritrea’s independence. For instance, when the National Charter of Eritrea was drafted emphasis was put on equal rights for women. The Charter states that “the issue of women is a major social issue, and a society that does not respect the rights and equality of women cannot be a truly liberated society.” The document also demonstrates the government’s resolve to preserve and advance what had been achieved during the armed struggle. It states that “Eritrean women must continue the journey which they started during the revolution under the slogan ‘Equality through equal participation in work,’ until they achieve this.”

The Macro-Policy also expresses the centrality of gender equality in the development of the country. Under ‘Gender Issues,’ the document stipulates that “all efforts will continue to be undertaken to sensitise and enhance the awareness of the society on the decisive role of women for the socio-economic, political and cultural transformation of the country. The equal rights of women will be upheld and all laws that subtract from this right will be changed. Participation of women in education and economic activities will be expanded”.

Education is a critical factor in achieving gender equality. For this reason, Eritrea has taken measures to ensure equality in the provision of education. The National Education Policy of Eritrea (2003) pledges that “the government shall work towards the elimination of gender disparity at all levels of the education system.” Schools are built throughout the country to ensure access for all school age girls and boys. Access to schools allows girls of all ages to develop their potential through education and to ensure their full and equal participation in the ongoing national development projects.

Gender equality in education is regarded as the foundation for improving the wellbeing of people and bringing about sustainable development. Eritrea has registered modest progress in achieving SDG 4, which is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning and SDG 5, which is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Women’s enrollment in primary, secondary and vocational schools as well as colleges is rising. For instance, out of the total 14,395 students who have taken the Eritrean Secondary Certificate Examination this year, women constitute 49.1 percent. Women’s enrollment is also rising in vocational and technical schools. For example, in the 2021/2022 academic year, women’s enrollment at Sawa Vocational and Technical School, who studied building technology and commerce and management, accounts for 48.4 percent. Similarly, women’s enrolment at Eritrea’s Institutions of Higher Education has been rising.

The figures show that Eritrea has created an environment where women have equal conditions for realising their full human rights and potentials. Equal participation in higher education enables young Eritrean women to contribute to and benefit from the development. The overall development of Eritrea depends upon the maximum utilization of all her people, both men and women. Therefore, full and equal participation of women in social and economic development is essential for the overall development of the country. Gender equality in education would help Eritrea in its struggle to improve living standards, reduce poverty, achieve social justice and create a sustainable future.

Laws and cultural traditions that limit the positive roles of women have been replaced with progressive ones or dismissed. Harmful traditions such as early marriage and female genital mutilation that impact young girls’ lives have been banned. The Land Proclamation issued in 1994 gives every Eritrean citizen the right to land based on the usufruct principle with no discrimination on the ground of sex. The Labour Proclamation of Eritrea No. 118/2001 also protects women against discrimination “as regards opportunity or treatment in employment and remuneration on the basis of their sex.” Like the other legal instruments, the revised Civil and Penal Code of Eritrea (2015) makes provisions for the legal protection of women.

Human resource is Eritrea’s prime resource and any investment in empowering women will contribute towards human resource development, which is crucial for nation building. The stability, prosperity, and sustainability of Eritrea lie greatly on equal rights of all citizens, and young Eritrean women are given the opportunity to make a difference.

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