ARTICLE: Combatting Ethnic Violence, War and Modern Slavery Practices in the Horn of Africa – High Hopes for the New Prime Minister of Ethiopia

Author: ELISE MILROY, WALK FREE INTERN FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA

The recent appointment of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is heralding a new era of peace in the Horn of Africa. The previous Prime Minister stepped down in February after months of deadly riots and demonstrations protesting human rights abuses. Within just a short space of time, Prime Minister Ahmed has already signed a peace treaty with neighbouring Eritrea, which has brought an end to the war and military stand-off between the two countries. Promising progress includes the release of political prisoners and the recent reopening of border crossings.

These are very welcome developments, as the two countries have been subjected to decades of prolonged ethnic violence, including the horrifying genocide of ethnic Amhara people. The Amhara genocide has received little mainstream media coverage, but reduced the Amhara population by at least 3 million people through military action, mass killings and alleged mass sterilisation of young women through forcible contraceptive injections.

Conflict in the region has resulted in nearly one million Ethiopians being displaced from their homes. Each month around 2,500 Eritrean refugees arrive in Ethiopia, including high numbers of unaccompanied minors. Displaced people are highly vulnerable to exploitation, including modern slavery. The Global Slavery Index 2018 estimates there are over 600,000 victims of modern slavery in Ethiopia, which represents a prevalence rate of 6.1 victims per 1,000 people. Eritrea has the highest estimated rate of modern slavery in the whole Africa region with 93 victims per 1,000 people and an estimated 451,000 victims. According to the Index, Ethiopia’s government responses rank 15th within the Africa region.

Modern slavery in Ethiopia takes several forms, including forced labour exploitation, forced sexual exploitation, commercial sexual exploitation of children, and forced marriage. Women and children are trafficked for forced labour, including in domestic work, weaving, farm work or begging, as well as forced sexual exploitation.

Ethiopia also has high rates of child marriage with two in every five girls married before the legal age of 18, and nearly one in five girls before the age of 15.  Within the Amhara region, the rates of child marriage are even higher with nearly 45 percent of Amhara girls married before the age of 18.  Promisingly, the Ethiopian Government has committed to eliminating child marriage and female genital mutilation in Ethiopia by 2025.  An Ethiopian tradition called telefa involves the kidnap and rape of girls; the girl’s subsequent pregnancy is then used to justify the marriage. Although made illegal in 1996, telefa is allegedly still practiced in rural parts of North-eastern Ethiopia. Tragically, the Amhara people have been continually subjected to extreme violence and systematic extermination.

Against this immense backdrop of challenges, there are still high hopes for peace and reform following the appointment of the new Prime Minister. The reality is however that, ethnic violence is still continuing with incidents as recent as September 2018 displacing over 900 people and killing 23 people. Displaced persons and those affected by conflict are highly vulnerable to modern slavery, as shown by recent research by the Walk Free Foundation. It is unsurprisingly, given that conflict often results in disrupting or completely dismantling the rule of law, damaging critical infrastructure, limiting access to education, health care, food and water (GSI, 2018).  While there are promising signs of progress, there is still a long way to go in combatting the continued violence and deep-rooted discrimination within the Horn of Africa. The international community must stay alert and monitor the new government’s progress and ensure those individuals most vulnerable during times of instability and conflict are protected.