Foreign Relations & International Law

Sexual Violence and the War in Tigray

Hilary Matfess
Wednesday, June 16, 2021, 8:01 AM

Reporting in Tigray suggests that different belligerents have engaged in different patterns of conflict-related sexual violence. Paying attention to these patterns is critical for understanding the dynamics of the conflict and holding perpetrators accountable.

Ethiopian soldiers under the African Union Mission in Somalia on foot patrol in the Hiran region of Somalia in 2016. (AMISOM Public Information,; CC0 1.0,

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It is now indisputable that the outbreak of war in Tigray, a region in northern Ethiopia, in November 2020 has resulted in widespread conflict-related sexual violence. In mid-April, the top public health official in the interim government in Tigray (a body established by the federal government) told Reuters that there have been more than 820 reported cases of sexual violence registered across five hospitals since the start of conflict. This health official further asserted that women are being subjected to “sexual slavery.” There are now assertions that the sexual violence in Tigray constitutes “genocidal rape.”

It may be trite to refer to the initial reports of sexual violence as being the tip of the iceberg, but it is worth underlining that these initial reports are unlikely to constitute the full extent of this violence.

Conflict-related sexual violence is underreported not only because of the inability to access wide swaths of Tigray but also because survivors of such violence may fear stigmatization or reprisal violence. A report from Insecurity Insight noted that “nearly a third of survivors were threatened with further violence if they sought help and/or reported the assaults,” providing a powerful incentive to keep quiet. There have also been threats against those who are providing care and drawing attention to war-related sexual violence. Insecurity Insight reported that a therapist providing care to a survivor “was also threatened with violence if he attempted to identify Eritrean soldiers as the perpetrators of this attack.” After publishing a story with the Los Angeles Times on gang rape by Eritrean soldiers, journalist Lucy Kassa’s home was raided by armed men who accused her of ties to the “TPLF [Tigray People’s Liberation Front] junta.”

Though conflict-related sexual violence is widespread in the war in Tigray, such violence is not an inevitable feature of conflict. Different belligerents in the war in Tigray have, according to available reporting, engaged in different patterns and degrees of sexual violence. Paying close attention to the nature of conflict-related sexual violence in the Tigray conflict is critical both for understanding the dynamics of the conflict as well as for holding the perpetrators accountable.

Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, Intra-Rebel Dynamics and the False Flag of Inevitability

The assumption that with conflict comes sexual violence is one of the most pervasive and frustrating misconceptions about conflict-related sexual violence because it suggests that sexual violence is a feature of every war, practiced by every actor, and is thus unavoidable. Not all militaries, nor all non-state armed groups, engage in such violence. Among those groups that do engage in sexual violence, the prevalence, targets and forms of this violence vary across armed organizations.

An armed group’s pattern of wartime sexual violence can reflect that organization’s characteristics. Previous work on sexual violence in armed conflict identifies that gang rape is a tactic of sexual violence often used by rebel groups that practice forced recruitment and militaries that practice press-ganging. Dara Kay Cohen’s work on the dynamics of sexual violence in civil war illuminates how such taboo forms of violence emerge to socialize combatants, particularly those forced into armed groups, transforming strangers into cohesive groups of combatants. Her work demonstrates that rape can be commonly practiced without being ordered.

In other instances, combatants are given direct orders. After the Rwandan genocide, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko was convicted of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The claims against her included that she “ordered women and girls to be raped.” In Rwanda, Bosnia and Myanmar, sexual violence was a tool of ethnic cleansing or genocide, alongside mass killings.

This is all to say that not all armed groups engage in sexual violence and different armed groups have different patterns of wartime sexual violence. Whereas some rebel groups have strict prohibitions on such unauthorized violence and enforce these guidelines, other rebel groups tolerate sexual violence as an unauthorized practice and still others order or authorize it as a formal policy. Though oft-described as a “weapon of war,” conflict-related sexual violence can serve different purposes for different non-state armed groups and can emerge either as a function of the rebel group’s characteristics or from direct orders from the leadership.

A forthcoming chapter titled “Sexual Violence as a Practice of War: Implications for the Investigation and Prosecution of Atrocity Crimes” by Kim Thuy Seelinger and Elisabeth Wood emphasizes that under both conditions (sexual violence as a practice and as a policy), those responsible for this violence can be held accountable. Their chapter, soon to be published in “The Oxford Handbook on Atrocity Crimes,” underlines that sexual violence does not need to be a “weapon of war” or a “strategy” (as it is so often portrayed) for perpetrators and their superiors to be held legally accountable.

Accountability for sexual violence in the war in Tigray requires gathering information about each group’s respective pattern of violence, as well as the full scope of the violence that victims have suffered. Understanding these important differences is not possible when sexual violence is treated as an inevitable and unremarkable aspect of conflict. The initial accounts of sexual violence that have emerged from Tigray allow for a preliminary analysis of belligerents’ respective patterns of sexual violence.

Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Tigray: Patterns and Perpetrators

As mentioned previously, while conflict-related sexual violence is widespread in the war in Tigray, it would be off base to assume that this implies that all belligerents in the conflict are engaged in sexual violence and that all perpetrators exhibit the same pattern of sexual violence. While many of the reports do not identify the perpetrators of sexual violence, information that has emerged from Tigray suggests that very different patterns of sexual violence are associated with different conflict actors. While drawing inferences from such a small sample requires caution, the data compiled by Insecurity Insight on dozens of instances of sexual violence between November 2020 and March 2021 is illuminating. The report includes information on 36 instances of sexual violence that affected more than 100 women. The patterns identified in Insecurity Insight’s data generally corroborate the news reports on sexual violence in Tigray—though this may reflect reporting on the same set of available cases, given that the Insecurity Insight report was drawn from “information available in local, national, and international news outlets and online databases.”

Insecurity Insight implicates Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces in conflict-related sexual violence and suggests that different belligerents in the conflict engage in different patterns of sexual violence. The report identifies multiple-perpetrator rape as an especially common form of sexual violence. Insecurity Insight reported that the most common location for women to be raped was inside of their homes. Roughly one in five instances of sexual violence in which details of the location were available took place in a military camp, which could indicate instances in which sexual violence is not opportunistic but, rather, either tolerated or endorsed by commanders.

Sexual Violence by Ethiopian Soldiers

Insecurity Insight reported that Ethiopian soldiers were implicated as the sole actor in 16 events and were reportedly involved in two instances of sexual violence in conjunction with Eritrean troops. There were an additional two events in which it was unclear if the perpetrators were affiliated with the Eritrean or Ethiopian armed services and one additional event in which the perpetrators were “possibly Ethiopian.”

Among the 14 instances of sexual violence perpetrated by Ethiopian soldiers alone (rather than in conjunction with other armed actors) in which information about the number of perpetrators was recored in the Insecurity Insight dataset, seven were instances of multiple-perpetrator sexual violence.

Of the 12 instances of sexual violence perpetrated by Ethiopian soldiers alone for which there were details about the location of the event, five took place in residences, three took place in health buildings and one took place in a military camp.

One of the highest-profile instances of sexual assault in the conflict was perpetrated by an Ethiopian soldier. An 18-year-old schoolgirl lost her hand while resisting an attempted rape by a soldier in an Ethiopian uniform. Prior to the attempted assault, the soldier had tried to force the woman’s grandfather to have sex with her and then shot the man when he refused.

Sexual Violence by Eritrean Troops

The forms and nature of sexual violence committed by Eritrean soldiers appears to meaningfully differ from the pattern of sexual violence by Ethiopian soldiers. The Insecurity Insight data records 12 instances of sexual violence committed by Eritrean soldiers acting independently. Of the eight instances of sexual violence committed by Eritrean soldiers alone in which there were recorded details about the location of the event, three took place in a military camp.

In fact, of the five total instances of sexual violence occuring in a military camp in which the perpetrators were clearly identified in the Insecurity Insight data, three were attributed to Eritrean forces alone and one additional event was attributed to a mixture of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.

One important piece of evidence that suggests sexual violence is a policy or a tolerated practice of Eritrean forces is one woman’s account of being taken by Eritrean soldiers while walking home after collecting crops; she and her sister were “forced into a pickup truck” and taken to a military camp, where they were subjected to sexual violence. The woman reported seeing other Tigrayan women there and that other women were brought into the camp during her time there. Another woman reported that Eritrean soldiers told her, while assaulting her, that “they were ordered ‘to come after the women.’”

Insecurity Inisght’s data suggests that gang rape is more commonly perpetrated by Eritrean than Ethiopian soldiers. Eleven of the 12 events in the Insecurity Insight data attributed to Eritrean soldiers alone were instances of multiple-perpetrator sexual violence. Just as in Cohen’s accounts of gang rapes as bonding processes, reports from Tigray often include details about perpetrators joking and laughing with one another during the attack. One victim of a gang rape by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers told the New York Times that she was tied to a tree and raped over a period of 10 days, during which “they took photos of me, poured alcohol on me and laughed.” The AP recently reported that Eritrean forces often sodomize their victims, a particularly taboo act in northern Ethiopia, and reported that Eritrean soldiers would watch one another rape Tigrayan women.

Sexual Violence by Amhara Militias

Two instances of sexual violence in the Insecurity Insight data are attributed to Amhara Special Forces. Both of these events took place in a residence and were instances of multiple-perpetrator sexual violence. There are also compelling and wrenching reports that sexual violence by Amhara Special Forces is a means of targeting Tigrayans because of their ethnic identity. A doctor working in a refugee camp in Tigray told CNN, “The women that have been raped say that the things that they say to them when they were raping them is that they need to change their identity—to either Amharize them or at least leave their Tigrinya status ... and that they’ve come there to cleanse them ... to cleanse the blood line.” The reports of this sexual violence cannot be divorced from the other forms of ethnically targeted violence and discrimination against Tigrayans associated with the war.

The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front

No reports of sexual violence by the TPLF (also called the Tigray Defense Forces, or TDF) are included in the Insecurity Insight data. This absence could reflect either restraint on the part of the TPLF or issues accessing communities that were potentially victimized by TDF fighters. It is worth noting that the TPLF had a reputation for gender-egalitarian ideology and strict prohibitions against rape when it was formed as a rebel group in the 1970s. The current iteration of the armed group may also take a hard line against sexual violence.

Notably, the rapid investigation by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a human rights organization affiliated with the Ethiopian government, on the massacre at Mai Kadra identifies the perpetrators of the widespread lethal violence as members of the “Samri” Tigrayan youth group, local police and members of local militias, and it identifies the victims as non-Tigrayans. While women and children were spared, eyewitnesses also said women received threats from the perpetrators that “tomorrow, they will come after the women. It will be their turn,” suggesting the possibility of sexual violence against non-Tigrayan women. A more recent report alleges ethnically based violence at the hands of Tigrayan militias but did not discuss sexual violence by these forces.


Though these are suggestive patterns about which groups are responsible for sexual violence in the war in Tigray and the nature of the violence practiced by each belligerent, they are far from definitive. Understanding the patterns of sexual violence that correspond to each belligerent is complicated by the frequency with which reports of sexual violence do not include information on the perpetrators. Furthermore, the reports from which this analysis is derived are preliminary and sparse; fears of retaliation and stigmatization, coupled with a lack of access to much of Tigray, make it difficult to document the complete pattern of sexual violence perpetrated by each armed group. As Insecurity Insight notes, “[I]t is not known to what extent these examples are unique or similar to the hundreds of other incidents of sexual violence that have been reported by various hospitals around the region and by UN and other humanitarian organisations.” In the future, we may find that the cases analyzed here and documented by Insecurity Insight provide a skewed portrait of the landscape of conflict-related sexual violence in Tigray. This possibility underscores the need to systematically gather information about the patterns of sexual violence by armed groups operating in Tigray. Only sustained attention to this issue will identify which actors have been responsible for what form and degree of sexual violence against civilians—and provide the basis for pursuing accountability for sexual violence during this conflict. Continuing efforts to do so matters both for ensuring that those responsible for these attacks are held responsible and for providing appropriate and adequate care to the survivors of such violence, which is detailed further in the following section.

Collecting Accounts Without Compounding Trauma

A symbiotic relationship may exist between efforts to provide care to victims of sexual violence, the provision of much needed humanitarian and medical assistance, and the process of seeking accountability for sexual violence.

Caring for victims of sexual and gender-based violence involves not only responding to their immediate health needs but also providing psychosocial support. Collecting information about the nature of the sexual violence that victims were subjected to should be treated as integral to planning and executing effective assistance and humanitarian programs. A significant number of medical facilities in Tigray were looted, leaving them ill equipped to respond to the population’s large and growing needs—and making effective allocation of resources all the more critical. Understanding belligerents’ patterns of sexual violence can help inform efforts to provide direly needed care and to direct the right resources to the areas they are needed the most. Gathering details surrounding incidents of sexual violence needs to be done in a manner that doesn’t retraumatize victims or leave them vulnerable to reprisal violence or stigmatization—and certainly should never be a prerequisite for receiving care. These detailed accounts of belligerents’ patterns of sexual violence will not only inform more effective service delivery but also can serve to document the scale of atrocities and bring those responsible to justice.

The reported establishment of a government task force to investigate sexual violence includes “plans to set up five centers where rape survivors can file reports with law enforcement and receive medical and psychosocial support.” For this task force to be successful, however, the victims must have confidence in the independence of the task force and medical providers from the Ethiopian government and that their accounts will not spur reprisal violence. It seems unlikely that, in the current climate, a government-established body will be able to effectively serve in this role.

Next Steps and the Long Road to Accountability

As researchers and activists continue to document and analyze sexual violence in Tigray, it is important to bear in mind that sexual violence in war is a wrenching development, not an inevitable one, and that the collection of evidence and testimonies is an important part of holding responsible parties accountable.

In late May, three Ethiopian soldiers were convicted of rape and more than two dozen others were reportedly on trial for sexual violence. Just as the reports of sexual violence represent the tip of the iceberg, these convictions represent just a preliminary step in a much longer process of accountability.

The recent convictions of Hissène Habré, former president of Chad, and Dominic Ongwen, a leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, for sexual violence underline that justice for the victims of sexual violence is possible. Equally as important, these trials highlight that accountability for sexual violence begins with detailed documentation of these violations. As Human Rights Watch noted, reflecting on Habré’s conviction, the long road to accountability began with “Souleymane Guengueng, a mild-mannered former civil servant who had himself been a detainee, who collected some 800 testimonies from victims in the early 1990s.” Bertram Schmitt, the presiding judge in the Ongwen case, stated that “the evidence the chamber received ‘overwhelmingly demonstrated’ that the abuse of women in the [Lord’s Resistance Army] ‘was truly systemic and institutional.’” Seven women testified regarding the “sexual and gender-based crimes Ongwen committed against them” in the pretrial phase. Their accounts helped to secure a conviction.

These examples underscore that when victims of sexual violence in the war in Tigray are capable of speaking about their experiences, it is imperative that the international community pays attention—not only to affirm their experiences and ensure that they have proper care but also to pursue accountability for the abuses they have suffered.

Hilary Matfess is an assistant professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. She is also a Council on Foreign Relations term fellow, a research fellow at the Research on International Policy Implementation Lab, and a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Program.

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