YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Women in Ethiopia often suffer from “traditional gender roles” where they are expected to defer to men in society.

“During gatherings where men and women are together, if a man stands up to speak, the women are expected to turn their backs and not look at the man while he is speaking,” said Ciaran Gallagher, Communications Officer for Trócaire, the official international development agency of the Irish bishops.

The agency works in the Horn of Africa country, which is currently suffering several humanitarian crises – including a drought, ethnic conflicts, and the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Trócaire has set up safe spaces for women in the country, to help protect them from violence and hardship.

“Currently there are 25 safe space groups for women in the area where Trócaire works,” Gallagher explained to Crux.

“Before COVID-19, such groups met once a fortnight. They are encouraged to talk about their experiences in a supportive environment. For many of these women this has been the first time in their lives that they have been able to express themselves openly.”

What follows are excerpts of Gallagher’s conversation with Crux about Trócaire work in Ethiopia.

Crux: Trócaire has been working in the Borana area in the Oromia Region of southern Ethiopia – an area prone to frequent conflicts and drought. What is the situation like?

Gallagher: Ethnic violence and recurrent natural hazards in Ethiopia have created a complex crisis. Responding to ethnic conflict in Moyale, Oromia, Trócaire has worked with Irish Aid to support 33,000 displaced people, implementing an ENFI distribution (Emergency Non-Food Item distribution – e.g. tarpaulins and tents, rope, clothing, blankets) and WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) response as well as ensuring the protection of women, girls and at-risk groups.

What is driving the conflicts in this region?

Crises are often driven by conflict over access to natural resources, including water and rangeland. Drought exacerbates the underlying tensions. In recent years, these tensions have been aggravated further by the emergence of ethnic tensions and conflict in Ethiopia.

As ethnic tensions have sprung up around Ethiopia, Borena has not been spared and conflict with neighbouring ethnic groups has had tragic consequences. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced as a result of conflict between ethnic Boren Oromos and Somalis. Note, this is primarily ethnic Somalis from the Somali region of Ethiopia, not from the country of Somalia.

How serious is the drought situation there and how does it affect locals?

Climate change is challenging the very fabric of many societies and clean water is becoming increasingly absent for so many people around the world. According to the WHO, three in ten people in the world lack access to safe water at home. Six in ten lack safely managed sanitation.

People in developing countries suffer the most. Inadequate water supply leads to food shortage, potentially famine, ecological decline and conflict over resources.

In places such as Adigrat, Northern Ethiopia, over 80 percent of the population depend on the rains to survive, and climate change has had devastating effects on the lives and livelihoods of poor people.

Trócaire, with the support of DFID UKAID Match funding, is working with communities like Adigrat across Northern Ethiopia. In places where harvests are regularly destroyed by increasing droughts and lack of rainfall, a DFID program to support a small reservoir is helping communities to respond. This project has pipes running for 5 kilometers, bringing water and life to green crop and providing support to hundreds of families.

Communities are now conserving soil, harvesting animal fodder and finding new ways to farm. They are becoming more resilient to the droughts that are increasing in intensity and frequency. Projects such as this allow communities to use river dams where water is trapped and then used to grow a vast array of crops. Rural communities build terraces on the sides of mountains that trap water and assist food to grow even in times of drought.

You have indicated that women in the region have experienced violence and extreme hardship. What do you mean? 

Over 600 women are members of women’s groups Trócaire works with in Southern Ethiopia, many of whom have experienced violence and extreme hardship. The groups have been set up to provide a safe space for these women and girls to gather together and to share their concerns.

The groups have had a huge impact on the women in this troubled area near the Kenya border, where almost 200,000 people have been forced from their homes in recent years due to conflict and drought.

Trócaire and our local partners have been working in the Borena Zone region to provide humanitarian assistance and protection services to the most vulnerable communities.

To deal with such suffering, Trócaire helped the women set up safe spaces, where they could speak freely.

Women and girls in displaced communities face huge burdens in these areas, and can be left on the fringes of society. Traditional gender roles are very entrenched here. During gatherings where men and women are together, if a man stands up to speak, the women are expected to turn their backs and not look at the man while he is speaking. So, these groups are really important, so that women have a safe space to share their concerns, get critical information and seek support.

Currently there are 25 safe space groups for women in the area where Trócaire works. Before COVID-19, such groups met once a fortnight. They are encouraged to talk about their experiences in a supportive environment. For many of these women this has been the first time in their lives that they have been able to express themselves openly.

One such women’s group is Angasu. This translates as ‘a ray of light that sparkles through darkness’ in the local Oromo language. Angasu is a lifeline for many community members. As well as psychological support, group members take it in turns to gather firewood and water for each other. They help elderly, disabled community members and new mothers with household chores. The women even construct and fix houses for other community members.

COVID-related lockdowns mean that such meetings are no longer possible. How has Trócaire been able to deal with this challenge?

These important life-changing groups are now under threat due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as large groups can no longer gather safely. In March, the Ethiopian government banned large gatherings of people and instituted social-distancing measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Group members feared that Angasu would be in danger of closing. This would cut off this invaluable support system for women and girls in the area. To prevent this from happening, with help from Trócaire and our local partner organization Oromia Pastoralist Association, Angasu members changed how they operated.

They adopted new procedures to allow groups to meet and share important COVID-19 information with other community members. Angasu now choose four representatives to support other members by organising small group sessions on COVID-19 prevention and hygiene.  In this way they avoid meeting in a large group, but the representatives then make sure that all the relevant information reaches everyone in the group.

Through thinking creatively and turning one large group into a wider support network of smaller groups, these incredible support groups can continue to operate.

How do you deal sustainably with environmental problems?

Activities are continuing in a number of countries including for example; the identification and planting of indigenous trees; distribution of seeds, stoves, water tanks distribution, gathering yield data from farmers and facilitating indigenous knowledge systems via WhatsApp/SMS.

Work in Borena brings together our Women’s Empowerment framework and approach, together with natural resource management approaches and market systems development approaches in order to build resilience in the local communities and sustainability of the interventions.

Natural resource management approaches in Borena utilize rangeland management best practices that work with traditional and formal governance structures, participatory community groups, women’s groups, elders, and a range of other actors, including private sector actors. A multitude of interventions, including water point restration, community pond construction, installation of rainwater harvesting and underground cistern storage, rangeland clearing and closure, community cut-and-carry forage, and work with input suppliers, such as animal health products, vets and paravets, and feed distributors.

Trócaire will continue to work with these communities to help them to adapt and cope with this reality. Yet we must also call on our own leaders to deliver national policies and action in Ireland and the European Union so that we too can play our part in tackling this global challenge.