The longest African independence war of the 1900s, Eritrea’s three decades long struggle was about far more than just political emancipation; rather, it sought to usher in a complete and radical transformation of society. An important part of the latter agenda – giving special attention to egalitarian, popular democratic principles – was a particular focus on women’s and gender-related issues. No longer would women be viewed narrowly as secondary, subordinate figures within society; instead, they would stand proudly as full equals to men. Embodying the notion of equality through struggle, valiant Eritrean women served honorably, fought bravely, and sacrificed greatly alongside men in the labyrinth-like trenches, on the battlefields, and across the frontlines. Ultimately, women would prove absolutely critical to the eventual achievement of independence. Following this legacy, the Government of the State of Eritrea has made the empowerment of women a national priority, and committed to a development agenda grounded in social justice and gender equality. This post highlights some findings from the recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Report, 10 Years: Women in Eritrea – National Union of Eritrean Women.
- The National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) was established in 1979 with the support of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (NUEW). The focus of NUEW is to improve the status of Eritrean women.
- Over its 35 year history, NUEW has grown considerably, and in September 2014 it held its 7th Congress. Furthermore, over the past decade, it has forged relationships and shared experiences with a number of sister organizations from within Africa and around the world, including the General Union of Sudanese Women, the Support Initiative for Women’s Empowerment in East Africa and the All China Women’s Federation. NUEW has also participated in key international forums and initiatives championing the cause of women’s rights and empowerment, including the International Women’s Conference in Beijing and the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (among others).
- NUEW’s membership base has grown in numbers: from 178,000 in 2003 to nearly 300,000 in 2013. Its membership now represents a decent percentage of the female population in Eritrea and covers all 6 regions, 66 sub-regions, 681 districts and 2631 villages. Notably, women in the diaspora continue to play a key role at NUEW and in the struggle for gender equality in Eritrea. They serve as ambassadors of NUEW vision abroad and have been at the forefront of efforts to empower women inside the country, politically, socially and economically. For example, NUEW women abroad have mobilized resources and raised funds to build professional training centres and offices for their sisters in Eritrea.
- As of 2013, organizational activities carried out in 120 secondary schools have increased the number of female student members of NUEW to 26,715. NUEW plans to continue activities that motivate female enrolment in schools until the female to male ratio is a balanced 50/50.
- Since 2004, 569 NUEW management personnel benefited from training programs on campaigning, awareness- raising, leadership, management techniques, communication skills, budgeting, reporting and monitoring. Other training programs offered for district-level NUEW management have reached 4,442 people since 2009, covering topics including women’s and children’s rights, malaria and HIV/AIDS prevention, gender and HIV/AIDS, hygiene, and post-partum fistula.
- More than 5,500 women have benefitted from NUEW legal counselling and educational programmes geared towards increasing women’s knowledge of legal issues.
- Over the past 10 years, NUEW has worked with the Ministry of Education to eradicate adult illiteracy, both by organizing educational resources and campaigning for the increased participation of women in the programme. Since 2003, nearly 350,000 people – 92 per cent of them women – have participated in the adult education program.
- NUEW has worked closely with the Ministry of Health and other partners to raise awareness of women’s health issues and prevent and treat health challenges confronting women that are caused by poverty and backward traditions. NUEW has conducted multiple seminars and meetings attended by more than 1.7 million people – encompassing 93 per cent women – towards this end.
- Since 2006, more than 1.2 million participants, 73 per cent of them female, have attended meetings on FGM and early marriage. A testament to the effectiveness and importance of these initiatives are rates of FGM/FGC in the country. Whereas Eritrea once had rates of 80-90%, recent health surveys have shown that only 17.7 per cent of young women aged 6-15 have undergone FGM/FGC, while even fewer girls aged 5 and below – 7.6 per cent – were circumcised.
- It is important to understand that economic empowerment, which refers to the resources and means an individual needs to achieve their desired goals, is an essential prerequisite for political enlightenment and organization.
- Over the past 10 years, NUEW has recorded a number of impressive achievements toward this end. More than 2.9 million persons – 90% women – have attended nearly 25,000 meetings on women’s empowerment. 47 million Nakfa has been loaned to nearly 12,000 beneficiaries of the Microcredit Program across the country and professional training centres have been established in a number of regions. Remarkably, out of the total amount loaned, upwards of 85 per cent has been reimbursed by clients and is already being put to use for lending to other clients.
- Over the last decade, NUEW has organized various professional handicrafts and artisanal programs to supplement existing skills. More than 5,000 women throughout the country have benefited from training in clothing design, sewing and embroidery, wickerwork, ornamentation, weaving, pottery, hairstyling, as well as computer applications and typing. Another more than 3,000 women received special trainings in video shooting, home economics, nutrition, doll making, childcare and midwifery. The programs have proven their practical worth by economically empowering women throughout the country.
- Rural women have also been targeted as, between 2003 and 2011, NUEW allocated a budget of more than 14 million Nakfa to provide more than 11,000 women in remote rural areas with donkeys and water bags. Also, NUEW and partners such as UNDP have supported the women with funds for farming and livestock keeping. More than 1,400 women farmers have received water pumps to cultivate a collective 153 hectares of land. Strong progress has been demonstrated among women farmers as a result and two groups of women farmers have organized for integrated assistance.
Around the world, it has long been the rule that women are inferior, with little to contribute to society. In Eritrea, an old, out-dated, backwards proverb states that “like there is no donkey with horns, there is no woman with brains.” However, from the days of the long struggle and since independence, Eritrean women have proven resilient exceptions to such outdated, patriarchal rules through their wholehearted participation, struggle, contributions, and sacrifice. Today, Eritrean women are contributing in all areas of society and in many diverse, important ways, ultimately playing a crucial role in the country’s general development and socio-economic improvement. It is wonderful to see the large focus on gender equality and women’s empowerment, and it is clear that NUEW efforts have led to so many positive developments. Moving forward, we should continue to follow their lead to support women and girls in all aspects society.
Read the full report here: http://www.er.undp.org/content/eritrea/en/home/library/womens_empowerment/undp-nuew-publication0/