Today I would like to tell you the story of Birtukan Mideksa, an Ethiopian prisoner of conscience who is facing life imprisonment for speaking out against an oppressive government. Birtukan is an opposition leader of the Unity for Democracy and Justice (formerly Coalition for Unity and Democracy) party and is advocating for democracy and rule of law in Ethiopia. After years of civil unrest and war with Eritrea, Ethiopia is still struggling to overcome oppression and establish political freedom. The parliamentary elections in 2005 spurred violent protests, which led to the
arbitrary arrest and detainment of hundreds of opposition leaders, journalists, human rights advocates and civilians. Birtukan was one of those arrested in 2005, and she received a life imprisonment sentence. Then, in 2007, Birtukan received a pardon and was released from prison, only to be put back into prison once more in 2008 for discussing the details of her prior arrest. Her original sentence of life imprisonment has since been reinstated.
Much of Birtukan’s time in prison has been spent in solitary confinement. The only people allowed to visit Birtukan are her mother and her four-year-old daughter. Before her arrest, Birtukan was the main provider for her family, who is now suffering not only emotionally but also financially from Birtukan’s imprisonment. She is not allowed to meet with any legal representation and the government refuses to listen to her needs. There are even reports that she is being denied medical treatment, despite numerous requests for a physician. The Red Cross and other humanitarian officials are being denied access to the prison, and the exact treatment of Birtukan is unknown.
When addressing the U.S. Congress in 2007, Birtukan stated that “only through dialogue and negotiation will stability and peace be guaranteed” in Ethiopia. In the context of the rampant human rights violations and other oppressive government actions, advocates for peace and freedom are desperately needed in Ethiopia. And yet, women like Birtukan are still being denied the opportunity to negotiate this peace.
Birtukan’s story represents the struggle women across the world are facing to have a political voice and to stand up for human rights. Take Jameela, a Palestinian woman from Gaza, who was imprisoned in Israel for 2 years when she was 18 years old for smuggling letters for the PLO. She was tortured. She was hanged from her hands for long periods, put in solitary confinement for about 6 months, and had drops of water dripping on her forehead for hours at a time. When she was finally released from prison, her entire community wanted to abandon her because they assumed she had been sexually abused in prison and thus had her honor taken away. Only her father and her future husband stood by her side. She is now living in a half-destroyed one-room house with her entire family.
Or take Mona, a young activist from Iraq, who was continually raped by a captain during the war so that he would not kill her brothers. This captain started a habit of visiting her daily at her family home. There, he would take her to a bedroom in her house, close the door behind him (her brothers, mother and sisters are still in the living room), and rape her. He would then leave her home. “Day after day, week after week, month after month he did that and not once did my brothers or mother said anything. As a matter of fact, when I would refuse to go with him, they would scold me and urge me to go to him so he wouldn’t get upset. In the beginning, this whole ordeal was to save my brothers from prison.” Mona is now activist dedicated to rescuing prostituted girls and women who, no different from her, ended up in a path not because of their desires but because they were saving loved ones as she saved her brothers.
According to the UN, 90% of modern war casualties are civilians, 75% of which are women and children. That reality only addresses the death tolls created by war. Statistics have yet to capture the price women pay for wars often just for living in it and trying to survive it. On top of political and military pressure, women are often faced with another layer of community and traditional demands. Then there are the women, like Birtukan, Jameela and Mona, who are trying to take a stand against these wars and who end up facing extreme oppression and human rights violations imposed by governments and military groups.
The bravery of these women despite all odds is inspirational. Women everywhere are paying a personal price for their political reality. It is these women, and the millions of women survivors of conflict who are striving every day to carry on in the midst of astronomical challenges, who are pushing us forward in the global women’s movement. It is these women who are standing up for peace and equality, finding their voices and speaking truth in the face of oppression and fear. These women deserve to have their voices heard.Salbi is the Founder and CEO of Women for Women International, a non-profit that helps women in war torn regions rebuild their lives. Salbi is the author of her memoir, Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing up in the Shadow of Saddam (Gotham 2005) and The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope (National Geographic 2006).