A statement by Ethiopia's minister of Women, Children and Youth marks the first official acknowledgement of crimes activists say have been widespread.

Internally Displaced People (IDP), fleeing from violence in the Metekel zone in Western Ethiopia, gather outside a tent where clothes are being distributed at a camp in Chagni, Ethiopia, on January 27, 2021.
Internally Displaced People (IDP), fleeing from violence in the Metekel zone in Western Ethiopia, gather outside a tent where clothes are being distributed at a camp in Chagni, Ethiopia, on January 27, 2021. (AFP)

Rape has occurred “conclusively and without a doubt” in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region, the country’s minister for women said in a rare government acknowledgement of the toll on civilians during the 100th day of fighting.

The minister of Women, Children and Youth, Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed, issued the statement late on Thursday after a task force visited Tigray to investigate accounts of sexual assault in a region of some 6 million people that remains largely cut off from the world.

“We await the investigation of these horrible crimes,” the minister said, adding that a team from the attorney general’s office is processing the information.

She did not say how many rape accounts the task force members collected or what parts of the Tigray region they visited.

A spokesperson for the attorney general's office did not immediately respond to questions.

READ MORE: Rape as an act of war is going largely ignored

Human rights report

The minister's statement came hours after the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission in a new report said 108 rapes had been reported to health facilities in the past two months in the Tigray capital, Mekele, and the communities of Adigrat, Wukro and Ayder.

"The war and the dismantling of the regional administration have led to a rise in gender-based violence in the region. Local structures such as police and health facilities where victims of sexual violence would normally turn to report such crimes are no longer in place," it said.

“Hence, there is a possibility that the actual number of cases might be higher and more widespread than the reported cases.”

Spokesperson Adinew Abera said the Women's Ministry had so far assessed only Mekelle and the nearby town of Quiha, adding, "We will deploy experts to all districts of Tigray. So the number will be higher than what is mentioned." 

READ MORE: Ethnic carnage in west Ethiopia escalates as Abiy tackles Tigray war

Witness reports

Several witnesses have told The Associated Press about alleged rapes by Ethiopian soldiers or those from neighbouring Eritrea, an enemy of the fugitive Tigray leaders and whose presence Ethiopia’s government denies.

Multiple women also told AFP about being raped by Eritrean forces, whose presence in Tigray is widely documented but officially denied by Addis Ababa and Asmara.

Last month the United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict said “serious allegations of sexual violence” had emerged in Tigray, while women and girls face shortages of rape kits and HIV drugs amid restrictions on humanitarian access.

“There are also disturbing reports of individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence,” Pramila Patten said in the UN statement. 

“Some women have also reportedly been forced by military elements to have sex in exchange for basic commodities, while medical centres have indicated an increase in the demand for emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections.”

READ MORE: UN: ‘Disturbing’ allegations of rape in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict

100 days of fighting

Friday marked the 100th day of fighting pitting forces loyal to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government against troops supporting the ruling party of Tigray, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

Though Abiy declared victory in late November when the Ethiopian military entered the Tigrayan capital Mekelle, the TPLF vowed to fight on, and aid workers say persistent insecurity is hampering the humanitarian response.

Thousands have died in the conflict, according to the International Crisis Group, and tens of thousands of refugees have streamed across the border into Sudan.

But humanitarian and media access restrictions have made it difficult to assess conditions on the ground.

READ MORE: Ethiopia launches operation to disarm civilians in restive Tigray region

A 'big' step

Sehin Teferra, founder of Ethiopian feminist organisation Setaweet Movement, said it was "a big thing" that Filsan acknowledged rape had happened in Tigray.

"It's really, really hard to talk about in terms of numbers and to verify rape anywhere. All we know is it's happening on a large scale and we know that from firsthand reports," she said.

Some parents in Tigray are shaving their daughters' heads and dressing them "as boys" to protect them from rape, she said, adding that her organisation had received multiple accounts of rape committed by Eritrean soldiers.

It is important for the government to follow through on promises to investigate and provide support to victims, Sehin said.

She also called for authorities to investigate rape in other conflict zones in Ethiopia, including in the western zone of Metekel where inter-ethnic violence is intensifying.

"We really shouldn't forget about other active conflicts," she said.

"I know everybody's resources are stretched, but it's really important to acknowledge that rape happens everywhere."

READ MORE: Ethiopia crisis: UN says little aid allowed inside govt-controlled Tigray

Source: TRTWorld and agencies