Women and the War for the liberation of Eritrea

For brevity’s sake, a full and comprehensive look at Eritrea’s over 100-year long history cannot be presented in this paper. Nor will this section attempt to address the 30-year, 1961-1991, struggle for Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia.

Suffice it to mention that the thirty-year war of liberation caused decades of lost opportunities for development, as well as the destruction of economic and social infrastructures. Eritrean women, like most women in countries at war, bore the brunt of the violence and were saddled with extraordinary responsibilities as their brothers, husbands, fathers and sons who left in droves to join the fight to liberate Eritrea.

Sondra Hale, an anthropologist at the University of California, whose research interests are in gender politics, social movements, and cultural studies, is one of the few that have researched and written about Eritrean women. In her 2001 paper, “The State of the Women's Movement in Eritrea”41, Hale wrote the following:

“…In the pantheon of women's successful participation in liberation movements, Eritreans would rank near the top. Many of us who research women and social movements have been watching Eritrean women very closely…women participated in one of the most protracted conflicts in the twentieth century and in an even deadlier second war spilling over into the twenty-first century… Eritrean society—half Christian, half Muslim—is highly conservative with regard to the cultural positioning of women… during the first liberation war (30 years), the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) developed one of the most enlightened views of women that we have seen anywhere in the world… Women participated fully—not as substitutes but as full-fledged citizens of revolutionary Eritrea—eventually comprising more than 30 percent of the fighting force and serving in all capacities; this is not the usual history of militaries, where women have more commonly been used selectively and mostly in jobs seen as extensions of their domestic labor…”

Eritrean women were not casual observers in the war; they were pioneers for women’s rights. The rights, privileges and responsibilities that Eritrea’s women enjoy today were not given; they were earned. From the early 1970s, tens of thousands of women from every ethnic group in Eritrea joined the liberation movements. An increase in Ethiopian atrocities against women and children resulted in the thousands leaving to join the liberation movement, contributing immeasurably not just to the liberation struggle, but also to the women’s emancipation movement worldwide.

The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) emphasized the equality of women and importance of their participation as equals. In the EPLF’s 3rd Congress of 1994, extremely important resolutions such as Resolution XI, on were passed in reference to women’s rights. Resolution XI -on enhancing social position of women states:

“…The congress reaffirms its categorical rejection of all ideas and practices that oppress women and detract from…The Congress resolves to struggle to draw up and implement programs to enable women to consolidate their political and social status, guarantee their economic freedom by enhancing their role in production and broaden their access to education and training so that they may become self-sufficient and maximize their contribution…”

Eritrean women were integrated into the ranks of the freedom fighters and fought alongside the men on the front lines. They made up 30 percent of the country's combat forces. The EPLF treated women as equals, and they served as platoon commanders, commandos, assault troops, tank and truck drivers, mechanics, doctors, etc. Women also served in many non-combat capacities as teachers, paramedics, political organizers, technicians, garage mechanics, drivers and more. Eritrean women in villages across Eritrea and in the vast Eritrean Diaspora organized to support the liberation movement.


41 Northeast African Studies , vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 155-177, 2001