Gender-Based Violence
Just as in West Africa, I continue to
manage a program to respond to and
prevent gender-based violence.  In the
camp we call the program Mesob /
Kowa.  The name, adapted by the
women in the camp, symbolizes unity
and harmony.  Mesob is a Tigrinian word
for the traditional woven plate on which  
dinner is served.  The women explained
that when dinner is served all the family
comes together and that quarrels and
disagreements are put aside while they
eat.  They also said that it also
represents an important recognized
function women do in family.  Kowa is
Kunama for "collective work".  They say
that men and women need to work
together to stop violence against women.
In 2007, we also expanded the program to 3 additional camps
serving Sudanese and Somali refugee.  each camp and
population has unique challenges.

As always there are some similarities as well as differences
between what I did in West Africa and what I'm doing now in
Ethiopia.  In West Africa, men’s attitude towards women
contributed greatly to the abuse of women however much of
the abuse could also be linked to their economic
vulnerability.  With the Eritrean refugees, while economic
hardship contributed greatly to many women’s circumstances,
attitudes towards women exasperate the problem.  Many of
the women in Liberia and Sierra Leone whom I worked with
tended to have a more ability to speak out and do as they
pleased.  Of course there were social rules and barriers for
women but they could follow them loosely which gave them
greater ability to speak about their needs and come together
collectively to improve their situation.  With Tigrinian Ertitrean
refugees, even though the population is better educated, the
social structures that bind women are strictly enforced.  Their
movements are seriously monitored and any move by
women, be it individually or collectively, will find opposition
from men who feel it is a challenge to their authority.  
In Shimelba Refugee camp, this is compounded by the
fact that women older than 15yrs constitute 15% of the
total population; while men of the same age are 56% of
the total population.  Due to the bizarre demographics
of the camp, men who are wary of loosing their free
labor (laundry, cooking, cleaning, child rearing) and sex
are even more controlling.   Single women find little
alternative but to partner-up because they feel threaten
by the overwhelming number of young men who
continually harass them for sex.   They will endure
difficult and unwanted relationships because at least
they know where the abuse will come from and can try
to manipulate it to be less hurtful.   

In addition, most Tigrinians come to the camp with the
dream that they will be resettled to the North America,
Europe, or Australia.  With only 200 individual cases
processed a year the competition is fierce.   People
continually undermine each other in order to have better
chance and those who seem to be on resettlement tract
have the power to manipulate relationships.  There are
a lot of marriages that happen when someone starts
going through the resettlement process.  Therefore
there is a myth by men who think that women change
partners whenever they think they see a better
resettlement chance. …so men fear more and control
more.  Individual resettlement is given to people due to
their vulnerability and their inability to integrate in to
Ethiopia or eventually return to Eritrea.  
It’s been extremely difficult to get women to
participate in activities and organize.  Because
everyone realizes that women are in more
vulnerable position than men, men worry about
women being able to express their collective
concerns because they think this will give women
a better draw in the resettlement lotto.  But at the
end of the day resettlement is a lotto.  Only 200
people out 12,000 with new arrivals coming each
month are actually resettled each year.   The
women have tried to organize themselves a
number of times (sometimes by themselves other
times with our help) but when they come together
the male leadership in the camp does it’s best to
disband the group or disempower it.   It got to a
point where women found doing anything
useless.  However, after a couple of months
without being organized and a little push and
shove women are trying to organize again.  This
time the women have greater support from all the
agencies.  Hopefully that will help us pressure the
men when they start to manipulate things.   And of
course it will be up to the women to hold it
Based on the same model that we use in
West Africa, we continue support women
who’ve been abused, build the capacity of
the health clinics, agencies and police who
provide services to abused women, try to
set up local systems to prevent GBV and
broaden peoples awareness of the causes
and contributing factors that lead to GBV
in order to prevent the abuse in the first
place. Because attitudes tend to be so
strong in the camp we put a lot of time into
an awareness campaign based off daily
event in Eritrean homes, coffee
ceremonies.  Each week we have
community workers fan out in the
communities with bags of coffee and sugar
and set up discussion with neighbors that
we hope will allow men, women, youth and
old to reflect on some of the reasons why
gender violence happens in their
community.  Initially, there was
resistance.    Women would say “We
experience the violence.  We know why it
happens”.  And, men would say that we
were trying to change their culture.  After a
month or two of caffeine filled sessions,
more and more people started to attend -
mainly because they are the ones
discussing, all we do is provide direction
so that discussions are simple and
succinct and end with an open question “is
it fair”.  

Some of the topics we talk about include
proverbs/sayings that put men and women
in a positive or negative light.  We want
our discussion groups to reflect on the
stories/sayings that they often take for
granted with out reading through the full
message.  My favorite saying was a
Kunama wedding greeting.  When people
congratulate the bride and groom they will
often say “I’m glad you brought your
donkey” to the groom about his newly
wed.  Obviously, none of the women are
ecstatic about this saying.  Most of the
men said what’s the big deal it just
something we say in our culture.  That
was until I went to a neighbor and brought
back a donkey which I introduced as my
wife.  It got a laugh and people started to
talk.  We also like discuss differences in
privileges, opportunities and limits men
and women a have.  One that I found
interesting with Tigrinia is that when men
and women eat: men can do a full hand
grab while women are expected to use 3

Most of what we talk about deals with
power relations from a human rights
perspective.  When I once asked a group
of men if they like to be beat, to no
surprise none of them raised their hands.
So, I asked if they thought women said
“please, beat me, please” (outside of
anything kinky of course), many men didn’t
necessarily answer and one man turned to
me and said “in our culture it’s ok to beat
your wife, sister or daughter if they didn’t
behave.”  My response was “in my culture
in the 1920’s it was ok for me as a white
man to beat a black man for being
disobedient, Is that ok?”  At which point
everyone said no.  The point is that we try
to bring up inconsistencies in what we like
to believe and what we do.  Lots of us
want our human rights to be respected but
often we forget that we don’t respect those
same notions for others and we use
excuses like “it’s our culture” to justify the
A conversation about sexual exploitation