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When Ethiopia `villagizes’, women suffer

April 15, 2015
Women in and Beyond the Global

The Oakland Institute released a major report today, We Say the Land is Not Yours: Breaking the Silence against Forced Displacement in Ethiopia. The report is comprised of oral testimony of individuals who have been violently displaced by the Ethiopian government’s ongoing villagization program. The Ethiopian government says it hopes to `resettle’ as many as 1.5 million people, all in the name of development … and direct foreign investment. Three years ago, Human Rights Watch released a major report, “Waiting Here for Death”: Forced Displacement and “Villagization” in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region.

Villagization is “the clustering of agropastoral and/or shifting cultivator populations into more permanent, sedentary settlements.” Families and communities that have lived on the land for centuries are “resettled” into “permanent” settlements. Settlements, bantustans, locations, encampments, prison colonies … you choose. What is clear in the miasma of scare quotes is that the years’ long campaign in “resettlement” benefits only foreign investors and their State clients.

In Gambella, in the westernmost part of Ethiopia, whole swaths of semi-nomadic, indigenous Nuer and Anuak people and communities have been targeted for “resettlement”, to “free” their land up. The Nuer and the Anuak have been moved, often at gunpoint and worse, to `new’ and `modern’ villages, where there’s little to no food, farmland, healthcare, or educational facilities. Ultimately, the plans are for 70,000 to be removed, out of a population of some 300,000. When Human Rights Watch reported on these forced removals, it was removed from the country. Likewise, the Ethiopian government has charged that the Oakland Institute is campaigning to perpetuate people’s poverty.

Where are the women in Gambella, and in villagization more generally? Everywhere and nowhere. In general, the news media ignores the gender implications of villagization and mass forced resettlement. The Oakland Institute has long argued that women and children have a particularly dire space in this program. Both Human Rights Watch and the Oakland Institute found that the new relocation sites, the “villages”, lacked schools, clinics, and running water, and so their infrastructure, in its lacks, targeted and condemned women to further hardships. Meanwhile, concentrating the land in the hands of a very few large-scale producers has meant the end of women dominated small hold farming, which means greater food insecurity, deeper and wider hunger, and impossibly greater amounts of unpaid and uncounted labor for women, as cash crops displace local food crops.

Today’s report does more than break the silence. It creates a space for voices, including women’s voices and stories. An eighty-year old refugee in Kenya tells a story: “A family I know was told that they had reached the final stage and were told to go back home. The wife refused. Her husband said that they should go to Uganda and try again for refugee status from another country. The wife was tired of moving and stayed. She has nothing. She sold her gold earrings to go back to the refugee camp. She tried to register with a new name, but the biometric gadget reflected her earlier record. They said she was trying to commit fraud and arrested her. She is now with us and has threatened to commit suicide if not granted the refugee status. The UNHCR decision [to not award refugee status] broke up the family. We try to watch over her.”

A woman refugee in Kenya tells her own story: “During the relocation, I was given a piece of land. I moved because I was forced. We had to build the tukul, our new home, ourselves. This does not mean we are content with it. According to our Anuak customs, we share everything. Our home country treats us as if we have no use, even though we were born and raised here. Our great-great-grandparents were there. We have suffered so much at the hands of the Ethiopian regime. After the villagization program, I was … sent for training. The main purpose of our training was to show us what the investors are doing and how they are cultivating our lands. We have seen only help for the investors. We were taken early morning and were brought back in the afternoon. Thirty minutes were given to eat lunch and we were not even provided water. We saw our lands worked by the others.

There are so many like me and whenever we speak, people don’t listen. The Ethiopian government uses us and our land. I’m not the only one. My brother and husband were killed by Ethiopian forces. When you move deep down in Gambella, life is hard. So we fled to Kenya for safety. I was in the camp 2 to 3 weeks ago, when 50 families seeking refuge were rejected. I don’t know what awaits us. We need help. We need our voices heard.”

At every step, the story of villagization is particularly a women’s story: “We need our voices heard.” The women are speaking. Who is listening?