UN says Tigray women suffer rape and ‘cruelty beyond comprehension'

Covid-19 increases levels of sexual attacks on women and girls in the world's hot spots

A Tigrayan refugee rape victim who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray sits for a portrait in eastern Sudan near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, on March 20, 2021. Several refugees from different Tigray communities told the AP they watched or listened helplessly as women were taken away by Amhara or Eritrean fighters and raped. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
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Women and girls in northern Ethiopia's turbulent Tigray region face worsening sexual attacks and "cruelty beyond comprehension", a UN official said on Wednesday.

In talks on gender-based crimes in war zones, Pramila Patten, the UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict, told diplomats that violence against women in war-torn parts of Ethiopia, Syria, Yemen, Myanmar and other global hot spots had worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

She made the comments in an address to the UN Security Council on her latest report, which described dozens of armed groups using mass rape and other forms of gender-based violence as a “cruel tactic of war” and a tool of political repression.

"In the remote, mountainous regions of north and central Tigray, women and girls are being subjected to sexual violence with a level of cruelty beyond comprehension," Ms Patten told the online conference.

“Healthcare workers are documenting new cases of rape and gang rape daily, despite their fear of reprisals and attacks on the limited shelters and clinics still in operation.”

She described more than 100 allegations of rape in Tigray since Ethiopia's federal army pushed out the former regional ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, from the capital Mekelle in November. Other estimates of rape are much higher.

The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, urged the council to do more to help women and girls in Tigray and for "independent credible investigations" into the commanders of various armed groups responsible for such attacks.

"We as a council must address reports of women being forced by military elements to have sex for basic commodities and reports of sexual violence against women and girls in refugee camps, among other horrific information," Ms Thomas-Greenfield said.

The UN updates an annual blacklist of armed groups that commit the most heinous sex attacks. Among the worst abusers are rebel, opposition and terrorist groups linked to ISIS or Al Qaeda networks.

The list includes government and police forces in Congo and South Sudan; government forces and intelligence services in Syria; armed groups in Sudan; and army and police in Somalia and forces in the semi-autonomous Puntland region.

Myanmar's military, which in February staged a coup against the country's democratically elected government and has since brutally cracked down on protesters, is also accused of such violence.

In the West African nation of Cameroon, the UN says 24 women were allegedly raped during a military operation against separatists in February last year, an incident that was not disclosed until July.

Government lockdowns and travel restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic curtailed job opportunities for women and increased the risk of trafficking and sexual exploitation, the UN said.

In Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the pandemic led to an increase in child marriage and "survival sex", the report said.

Denis Mukwege, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and gynaecologist who has treated hundreds of rape victims in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, urged council members to do more than just debate the subject.

“The progress in international law should not hide the fact that the scourge of sexual violence, which is a real pandemic, continues to prevail in all situations of conflict,” Dr Mukwege told diplomats.

“Responses remain underfunded and the climate of impunity for sexual-related crimes remains more the rule than the exception.”