“Bismullah…Besmeam…Awet n’Hafash!” As we sat down to eat dehrar (dinner), a longtime, close friend of my family – who I commonly refer to as my aunt – recited a unique blessing. After my mother and I raised our eyes and heads and responded with, “Amen,” I asked her what the particular significance of the recital was. “It is about having reverence, respect, and tolerance for the different faiths and beliefs within our diverse society, and remembering what our long struggle has been and is about,” she replied. “Simply beautiful,” I thought to myself, while absorbing the wonderful aromas emanating from the food spread across the table. Although numbering only a few words, the pre-meal blessing resonated deeply with me; I could not help but recall how critical tolerance and respect have historically been for peace, development, and growth, especially within ethno-linguistically, racially, and religiously diverse societies – such as Eritrea’s. Heartily digging into the food, I pondered how although the young country faced many challenges, my aunt’s pre-meal blessing was a microcosm of, and hopefully an augur for continued, internal peace, respect, and tolerance.
The meal was “stick-to-the-ribs” good; an array of diverse colors, flavors, spices, sauces, and textures, masterfully combined, and all washed down with mai-gas (carbonated water). But even more rewarding and fulfilling, a type of food for the soul, was the wide-ranging discussion with my aunt, which lasted several hours. She was a member of the Eritrean struggle since the 1970s – before I was born! – and was now involved in a variety of important development initiatives. I sat in my chair mesmerized, like a young child sitting on Santa’s lap, soaking in her stories and experiences, and pleading with her to, “go on, go on.” I was, again as so many times before, struck by the coherence and intelligence she effortlessly displayed, fluidly touching upon one topic after another, much like my professors in graduate school used to do.
“Ha, Ha, HA, HA!” The loud laughter at the table next to ours caught my attention. A group of middle-aged men were gulping down drinks, cracking jokes, and slapping five – basically just enjoying themselves. Turning to get a glance, I noticed how one of the younger men was wearing a shirt with the internationally-recognizable “S” on his chest. Smiling to myself, I reflected on the symbolic relevance of the scene; while he wore a shirt representing ”Superman,” here at my table, mere inches from me, was a real-life heroine. A “superwoman,” and one whose story of courage, persistence, dedication, and service was representative of so many Eritrean women, past and present.
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. In a similar vein, since independence Eritrean women have been key drivers of the nation’s pursuit of broad national development and economic progress.
The next morning, as I walked past Catedral, still positively buzzing after the wonderful meal with my aunt and mother, I continued to reflect on the vital role and significance of women within developing societies, and I thought of what Eritrean women represented. I remembered the confident, self-assured women taxi and bus drivers who spoke about jobs, “there are no [men’s] jobs or [women’s] jobs…there are jobs, and anyone can do them.” I fondly recalled the various female shop owners and entrepreneurs, such as the lady with the ducan (store) by my place, and I also pondered about the farmers in rural areas and the women selling items in the shouk (marketplace). Making my way past the Ministry of Education and one of the regional courts, my mind also drifted to thinking about the students, teachers, ministers, judges, soldiers, and administrators…all who worked proudly.
Sitting on an empty bench to collect my thoughts, I moved over as I saw a young lady approaching. I smiled and motioned for her to have a seat. She was smartly, professionally dressed, and as she sat down, she said, “thank you,” in English (with less of an accent than I could say the equivalent yekinyelay in Tigrinya). “Where are you headed?” I asked. “Sirah (work),” she replied. “It figures,” I pleasantly thought to myself, taking out my notebook to put my thoughts on paper.
The paternalistic image and depiction of “Third World” women is one of poor women, living in hovels, having too many children, illiterate, ignorant, tradition-bound, victimized, and either dependent on a man for survival or impoverished because they lack one. “Third World” women are “out there” somewhere, to be known through theories and intervened upon from outside. They have “needs” and “problems” but few choices and no freedom or power to act. Yet, here beside me, and throughout the country, were examples that shattered those presumptions. Women, of all ages and ethnicities, daily exhibited empowerment, agency, initiative, and independence, and they were intricately involved within many of the positive changes and developments in the country.
After independence, in honor and recognition of Eritrean women’s monumental contribution to the struggle, the country took several steps to formally guarantee women’s equal standing in all sectors of society. It signed and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1995 and has worked to implement the Beijing Platform for Action. As well, the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) has coordinated, monitored, and implemented a broad array of gender-equality programs and initiatives. In education, there has been a focus on expanding access and opportunities for females, and gender disparities in enrollment and literacy have improved significantly.
Attention to gender-equality has also extended to the employment and economic sectors. National Labour and Land Reform Proclamations secure legal protection for women in employment, guarantee women equal opportunities and maternal-protection benefits, and ensure that women are able to purchase, use, or inherit land without discrimination. Additionally, several national initiatives, such as the Macro Policy and the Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy Program, were created to guarantee that women would be appropriately supported in fulfilling their potential.
Later in the day, as I got off the crowded bus and headed home, I saw a group of young children laughing and playing in the distance. I waved, admiring their enthusiasm and exuberance, yet, they hardly took notice of me. As I was nearly past them, I finally realized what it was they were doing – racing. Then, almost to underscore my thoughts from the previous two days, a small girl, her spindly little legs propelling her far ahead of the rest of the boys and girls, proudly announced, “Ane Te’awite! Ane Te’awite! (I win! I win!).”
Yes you can. Yes you did.
Eritrea’s diverse efforts towards promoting equality, coupled with gradual – yet noticeable – societal cultural changes, have seen women integrated into many sectors of society and the economy, allowing them to play a vital role in the country’s development and progress. Women now constitute between 35%-45% of the workforce, and they remain very active in the informal sector. While women have traditionally been concentrated in manufacturing – such as the garment, leather, and tobacco industries – improvements in education and expanded opportunities have meant that more women are transitioning to high-skilled sectors.
Notably, today many women proudly own land, often using it for farming or to build houses. Their ownership also extends to business, where they retain control over 40% of all small and medium-sized enterprises. Impressively, the largest manufacturing factory in Eritrea is owned by a woman. Finally, Eritrea’s nascent mining sector has received strong impetus from women; they perform a variety of construction, driving, administrative, technical and managerial functions.
Around the world, it has long been the rule that women are inferior, with little to contribute to society. In Eritrea, an old, 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.