Six months have passed since a cessation of hostilities agreement was reached to end the two-year war in northern Ethiopia. The deal, signed by the Ethiopian government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) under the auspices of the African Union, should be lauded for establishing a framework to halt a conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.
But the agreement can, and must, be enhanced. Only a comprehensive and inclusive peace deal – one that expands the range of combatant forces and regional conflicts it includes – will bring Ethiopia closer to the day when it will never again suffer through such a tragic war. And Ethiopian women and girls, who have been excluded from the peace process, must be given a seat at the table. As we have seen in Sudan, fragmented peace processes sidelining women lead to limited agreements perpetuating the cycle of war.
The Tigray war was the world’s most hidden conflict, receiving very little international attention. The number of civilian deaths has been estimated at 600,000, exceeding the Ukraine war in lethality. Millions were forced to flee their homes, more than half of them women and children. Hospitals and emergency clinics were destroyed.
The scale of the brutality against women and girls is almost too painful to relay. According to a United Nations panel of experts, sexual and gender-based violence – in particular rape – was perpetrated on a “staggering scale” by all parties to the conflict. Investigative reports all agree that survivors suffered profound violations to their physical and psychological integrity that will scar them for life.
While accountability for crimes committed against the victims is a necessary component of lasting peace, I believe we must first find the women, support them, give them space to heal, and provide them with the psychosocial support they need.
Last November, when Ethiopian government and TPLF negotiators met in Pretoria, South Africa, the parties had the strength to stand against war. Yet, peace is always a work in progress. Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairperson of the African Union Commission, said as much during a ceremony last week commemorating the deal. “We know that much still remains to be done,” he noted, citing the need for further work on political dialogue, transitional justice, disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration.
A stable and peaceful Ethiopia is vital for regional stability at a moment when the Horn of Africa is spiralling further into crisis. The AU can bolster the peace in Ethiopia by engaging forces that fought in the Tigray war but weren’t part of the peace negotiations in Pretoria. Further, the AU should seize the historic opportunity to include armed groups involved in conflicts afflicting other regions of Ethiopia. The news that the Ethiopian government participated in talks with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) from the Oromia region is indicative of what is possible. An all-Ethiopia peace process could usher our country into a new era.
I have dedicated my activism to working with Ethiopian women and young people. I know their strength. In 2018, I was privileged to participate in efforts to foster peace between the Oromo and Somali (of which I am a member) communities of eastern Ethiopia, which were engaged in fierce border clashes. The collective action of women from both communities was instrumental in improving border security, a striking example of the potential of women’s engagement.
That potential has been ignored in Sudan, with disastrous results. The pro-democracy movement of 2019 was women-led – as exemplified by the iconic image of 22-year-old Alaa Salah atop a car, leading protesters in songs and chants – but women were mostly excluded from efforts at peacemaking. We know that peace agreements involving women are 64 percent more likely to succeed. Instead, the men with guns dominated the process in Sudan. We have seen the consequences. The lesson for Ethiopia couldn’t be clearer.
In practical terms, Ethiopian women should constitute 50 percent of the delegations engaged in any aspect of the peace negotiations. They should play an equally robust role in planning, implementing, and monitoring all humanitarian interventions, ensuring that the needs of women and girls, women with disabilities, and other neglected groups are not overlooked. Ethiopian women can play instrumental roles in any national dialogue process and transitional justice efforts.
I have met with survivors of sexual violence committed during Ethiopia’s conflicts throughout the course of my work. I think of them now as my country marks six months since it embarked on a journey towards peace that I hope is only beginning. We owe it to them to build an expanded and durable peace process with the AU’s help. And we owe it to Ethiopia’s future to insist upon their active involvement.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.