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Wednesday, 2 December, 1998, 21:31 GMT
No easy walk to freedom
Posters portray women at the vanguard of Eritrea's develoment
From popstars to politicians, soldiers to scientists, company directors to columnists - today women are represented in all walks of life in Eritrea. Thirty years ago, this was unthinkable. Yet over the past three decades women have cast off the apron strings of a traditional society and transformed their status.

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It was the war against Ethiopia which really provided the catalyst for change. Eritrea won not only its independence, but a new era for women. Before the war Eritrean women were firmly tied to the kitchen. Yet often, all that was left for the women were leftovers, which they ate alone once the rest of the family had finished. "Women had to be subservient and submissive", says Luul Gebreab of the National Union of Eritrean Women: "they couldn't even speak out loud".

Eritrean women had little status in traditional society
Marriage was a purely financial transaction arranged by the family with the bride going to the highest bidder. As one young woman put it "women were practically engaged in the womb!" Once married, if a woman did not produce a son or her husband was in any way unhappy with her, he could divorce her without a penny's compensation. And education was exclusively for men. Women had no legal rights and little chance to control their lives.

The winds of change started blowing in the 1970s. By then, the war against Ethiopia had already been raging for ten years. "Women were persistently asking for participation because they were being slaughtered by the Ethiopian soldiers" says Luul Gebreab. They were fearful of their lives and so outraged at the atrocities committed by the Ethiopians that they wanted to take part in the fight to free Eritrea. Foazia Hashim, the country's current Justice Minister (the first and only woman to hold a ministerial post), also traces the birth of women's liberation in Eritrea to this period.

Initially the male fighters of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front ignored the calls from the women. But after much lobbying it dawned on the EPLF that the revolution could only succeed if women participated. Women flocked to the army; but the battle to prove they were good soldiers, equal to their male counterparts was just beginning.

Luul Gebreab remembers when she first found herself on the frontline that the men called women "kalashnikov chicks". Emanuel Mehereteab, who commanded a unit of four thousand men and women, recalls his reaction to the women fighters: "Initially you don't accept them as equal but when you see (them) working beside you, better than you, then slowly the perception changes, then you realise you are equal with them. I found more dedication in women than men."

Women, who made up one third of the army, found themselves working in every aspect of the struggle - from platoon commanders and tank drivers, to barefoot doctors and engineers. There was absolutely no discrimination and a policy of total equality. And even away from the frontline the situation improved dramatically for women. For the first time ever women were given land to farm and the income from the crops meant they could finally be independent. One of the main changes was the establishment of local councils, known as People's Assemblies, which were made up of men and women. This was the first time ever that women had the opportunity to represent themselves, influence their lives and be assertive.

Women across Eritrea joined up - and broke away
One moment women were tied to the kitchen, the next they were equipped with guns fighting on the frontline. The change took some getting used to. Helen Meles was thirteen when she joined the EPLF. She remembers how women from very traditional communities reacted when they first joined up. "It was very difficult for them; even wearing trousers was strange and they were shocked when they had to share a blanket or bed with the men".

By the end of the war in 1991 the lives of Eritrean women had changed so much they were determined not to go back to their old roles. As the EPLF became the government and Eritrea was officially declared an independent state, the time was right for laws which would officially recognise equal the status of women. New laws gave women the right to own land, feudal marriage laws were banned, bride prices and dowries were restricted, female circumcision was made illegal, women were given the right to vote, and citizenship for women and children born out of wedlock was legalised. A new Constitution was drawn up which stated that "any act that violates the human rights of women or limits or otherwise thwarts their role and participation is prohibited."

Despite the laws, the transition process from frontline to everyday life was not easy. "It was very difficult, much tougher for women. They had married comrades in the ranks and when they came back, a lot of families in Eritrea made pressure on the men to divorce their wives because they don't conform to the traditional society's idea of a proper wife - who's meek, soft spoken and gentle" says Dr. Asmaron Leggessi, who's made a study of women fighters. And the problems continued outside the home. When women tried to get work they found themselves battling with men to prove that they were capable of doing the job. Overnight, it seemed the men forgot how the women had worked as equals during the war and cast them back in the traditional role.

Emanuel Mehereteab tells a story of how he was working with a group of women ex-fighters who were highly qualified builders. Men wouldn't work with them because they believed that women couldn't build houses. So he arranged for the women to build a kindergarten to show the men they could do the job. When the men saw the finished building they couldn't believe their eyes. "They were trying to touch it, to see that it was real because they didn't believe that the women had built it" says Emmanuel.

Girls' education often takes second place to domestic chores
It's this prejudice that the National Union of Eritrean Women is trying to overcome, but their main task is getting women educated. It's estimated that ninety per cent of Eritrean women are illiterate, which makes finding work a major problem. Over the past six years the union has organised literacy classes for more than 26,000 women. They've also organised computer training, business management, handicraft, tailoring, English and typing classes to try and get women trained up for work. Kindergartens and childcare centres have been set up across the country so that women can work even if they have a family.

Perhaps the hardest tradition to change has been female circumcision or female genital mutilation (FGM). This practise is still deeply rooted. Asmaron Leggessi tells the story of how he visited a village where two sisters were fighting it out over this issue. "One woman was saying that it is inhuman to circumcise women and the other was saying it is inhuman not to be circumcised. It was a war between two sisters." And the war looks set to continue unless the National Union of Eritrean Women can convince the elders of the religious communities. "Even people who are familiar with the Koran or the Bible cannot find anything that says that women have to be circumcised" says Luul Gebreab, "We are against such practises as female genital mutilation. So we have to take time, discussing with the religious groups and persudading them that this is not an issue in the religious papers."

There is a new mood of confidence among Eritrean women
The future is far from bleak for the women of Eritrea. Today more than a third of the parliament are women, there's a female minister and many of the top civil servants are women. There are scores of businesses, from hotels and shops to petrol stations, which are run by women. In the words of Dr Legessi, "these are not token positions. These are the outcome of the thirty year war which was also a war to equalise the unequal - and they've achieved it."

WEBSITE EXCLUSIVES: Justice Minister Foazia Hashim,
Eritrea's first woman minister: " After the war, women couldn't go back to the old ways..."
Nancy Zakaria, hotel manager:
"the laws are good, but the family is so powerful here..."
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