5 Things to Know About the Emergency in Tigray

Two girls in a refugee camp for Tigrayans in Sudan. UNFPA Sudan/Sufian Abdul-Mouty

Tigray is a region in northern Ethiopia that sits between the country of Eritrea to the north and the Amhara region to the south. Since November 2020, conflict has been unfolding in Ethiopia between the national government in Addis Ababa and the regional government of Tigray. Friends of UNFPA and UNFPA participated in a panel with the organization Health Professionals Network for Tigray in March 2021. Women and girls in Tigray are facing extreme barriers to care. Here is what you need to know about what’s happening in Tigray:

The situation is bad, but it could become much worse.

UNFPA is helping to urgently recruit midwives and provide emergency supplies to support safe childbirth for displaced pregnant women. © UNFPA Ethiopia/Salwa Moussa

In November 2020, the United Nation’s Human Rights Council expressed concerns that the conflict in Tigray could, “spiral totally out of control, leading to heavy casualties and destruction, as well as mass displacement within Ethiopia itself and across borders.” In the months since, the conflict only seems to have gotten worse. There have been reports of civilian massacres. In two particularly bloody days, about Eritrean soldiers killed 800 civilians in Aksum, a historic city in Tigray. Over 2 million people have become displaced as a result of the conflict. Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes for neighboring Sudan. As the situation continues, the likelihood of more deaths and displacement only increases.

Women and girls in Tigray are experiencing violence.

A family finds a home in a refugee camp in Sudan. When migrating, women and girls are more likely to experience gender-based violence. UNFPA Sudan/Sufian Abdul-Mouty

Women and girls are at increased risk of sexual violence. In Mekele, the capitol of Tigray, numerous reports of rape have been recorded. There is less information on the more rural areas of Tigray. But it seems that women who do travel to health facilities are reporting more cases of sexual assault among family members and neighbors.

Doctors Without Borders has reported that over 80% of healthcare facilities in the region have been destroyed or looted. This has made even basic medical care unavailable. In a statement, several UN agencies noted that only one facility in the region could provide for the clinical management of rape and less than half of facilities were equipped with emergency contraception. One health provider noted that HIV prophylaxis medication, which can prevent HIV infection for those at risk, is not available. This is concerning as the HIV infection rate in the area is relatively high. Women and girls in Tigray need access to family planning, gender-based violence protection and prevention services, and the full range of sexual and reproductive health care.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali recently won a Nobel Peace Prize.

A man holds in child in a camp for Tigrayan migrants. UNFPA Sudan/Sufian Abdul-Mouty

Ethiopia’s current prime minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his “efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.” Notably, Tigray is bordered by Eritrea to the north, potentially heightening tensions in the region. Until March 2021, Prime Minister Abiy has denied Eritrean involvement in the conflict. However, numerous organizations reported of horrors, like mass executions and rapes, committed by Eritrean soldiers, as early as November 2020. International powers are calling on Abiy to resolve the conflict peacefully. 

An ongoing communications blackout has caused confusion.

A woman and her daughter walk through a camp for migrants escaping violence in Tigray. UNFPA Sudan/Sufian Abdul-Mouty

Prime Minister Abiy appears to have ordered a communication blackout in Tigray, which has made reporting the situation very difficult. Aid organizations are unable to assess and report needs and journalists and others are unable to investigate human rights abuses. Those living in Tigray have little or no access to electricity and news media. Some journalists have faced intimidation, harm, or even death for reporting on the situation or for just being a Tigrayan. Lucy Kassa, who participated in the panel by Health Professionals Network for Tigray, is one such journalist. Ethiopia does not have a strong history of journalistic freedoms. However, it had been improving over the past few years, according to Reporters Without Borders. Now, those freedoms are vanishing and disinformation and misinformation are becoming widespread.

UNFPA and other aid organizations are ready to provide care.

Already in migrant camps, UNFPA is poised to provide care in Tigray. UNFPA Sudan/Sufian Abdul-Mouty

UNFPA has positioned dignity kits, emergency birth kits, rape kits, and reproductive health kits around Tigray so women and girls can receive aid. Aid organizations have recently received access to rural areas of Tigray and are beginning to provide care there as well. UNFPA operates mobile health clinics. The clinics are better able to reach migrating or isolated women and girls. Continuous access to sexual and reproductive health care is imperative to ensuring that all women and girls can reach their full potential, even during a developing humanitarian emergency.  

You can learn more about the ongoing emergency in Tigray by listening to this panel from Health Professionals Network for Tigray. You can donate to Friends of UNFPA to support UNFPA’s lifesaving efforts, like those taking place on the ground in Tigray.  

-Dana Kirkegaard 

Your support helps UNFPA care for women and girls when they need it most.

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