Our next Round Table guest comes to us from Europe; but is as African as an African can be. By way of fair and full disclosure; she is also a relative of mine and in my heart, she is my sister. She is Eritrean by birth. But, like many other Eritreans who left during the war for independence from Ethiopia, she now lives in Europe after spending many years in the U.S. I thought that you would enjoy her perspective because she is not only a member of the much-discussed African Diaspora, she is also a staunch supporter of human rights, the rights of African women specifically and has spent most of her adult life fighting to attain democracy for some of Africa’s voiceless citizens including her own brother. Her name is Freweini Ghebresadick and I introduce her to Mama Afrika’s friends with the greatest joy in my heart.
Thank you Mama Afrika for your gracious introduction and the opportunity you afforded me to share my story with Mama’s friends; I am deeply touched. I admire your commitment to helping indigenous African women by connecting them the world through your Fair trade online business, MamaAfrika. In my view nothing gives any human being more pride and joy than to support one’s family by earning his or her own bread.
1. I was once told that it was important to be able to describe myself (who I am, what I do and what is important to me) in just one sentence. I offer you the same challenge: Who are you?
I am of complex identity and culture, Eritrean by birth, American by nationality and now residing in Germany, ever struggling to see the freedoms I enjoy in the free world realized in my country of birth.
2. I know that you are passionate about human rights globally; but more specifically in Eritrea. Please tell us why this issue is so important to you and what aspects of human rights are dearest to your heart. What has given you the passion for human rights issues?
Individual freedom is very important to me, i.e. to have the freedom to make choices as an individual. Every human being is born free and man should not control man; but forces of evil work otherwise, which unfortunately is a reality in Eritrea. And this reality did not spare my family; my brother Teklebrhan Ghebresadick, who sacrificed his youth and fought for 17 years in the Eritrean war for independence from Ethiopia, finds himself confined in a container in an undisclosed prison location in Eritrea. Teklebrhan was kidnapped from Kassala, Sudan by the government of Eritrea, right after independence; just when Eritreans, including me, were looking forward to reuniting with those the 30 years war spared.
That fateful day was Easter day, April 26, 1992. Teklebrhan was one of several freedom fighters in my family. It was also around that time when my family was told about the martyrdom of my younger brother and younger sister who happened to be on the government side. For my parents, it was very difficult to deal with these two contradictory plights at once. Here are parents of freedom fighters, whose children albeit in different fronts, fought for the same cause, receiving news of martyred heroes and a detained “traitor”.
Who would have thought that any Eritrean would be kidnapped in an independent Eritrea for no apparent reason, other than being in a “wrong” front! The martyrdom of the sons and daughters of Eritrea was meant to bring justice for those who survived. To add insult to injury, in those years, stones would be casted upon you by Eritreans, for disclosing incidents of kidnap, the lack of rule of law and the like. So, one cried, alone, behind closed doors; there is no way to explain the thoughts and feelings.
As difficult as it was, I could not put up with the silence for long. In addition to the enormous love and respect I have for Teklebrhan, I was convinced that to act and let my voice be heard was a responsible thing to do. Consequently, I went to Eritrea at the end of 1992 and frequented the prisons around Asmara and inquired his whereabouts. My stay in Eritrea was only a month, but towards the end I was threatened, in person, with imprisonment, if I continued inquiring about this taboo subject. I have not returned to Eritrea ever since, but continued my fight for justice with the cooperation of governments (politicians) and humanitarian organizations and finally with other Eritreans. I owed it to my brother and others like him to tell their stories. What is most unfortunate is, over the years, my family’s story has become the story of the majority of Eritreans.
3. Although Eritrea is a one-party state, which many call a dictatorship, political division within the Diaspora is rich and often very heated. What do you say to those who might accuse you of caring only about a particular political party and using it to your own gain?
To oppose exclusion or one party sate is to be inclusive. We are not fighting to simply oust the one party state government but rather to bring about a multiparty democracy. And that inclusiveness would benefit us all.
4. Many say that the term “human rights” implies women’s rights. They argue that therefore, no special status is needed for women. How do you answer them and what examples have you found in Eritrea which can serve to help explain your viewpoint?
Women’s rights are human rights; but human rights do not imply women’s rights; for there are rights which address issues specific to women. The reason is, women suffer the same human rights violation as men plus human rights violations that arise from women being discriminated against and abused on the bases of their gender. Without regard to geographical differences and level of development, throughout history women have not had equal access to resources such as education, property, legal and health services, work etc. For that reason, the historical imbalances need to be corrected; so I disagree with the notion that no special status is needed for women. Eritrean women are no different in terms of historical imbalances; however not much has been achieved to narrow the gap of inequality between men and women.
First of all, in the sense of movement, the issue of women’s rights was introduced with women joining the armed struggle and playing a double role, for the emancipation of women from an oppressive culture and male chauvinism and the liberation of Eritrea. Sadly, after independence, a combination of being demobilized from the army with no skills or resources to cope with the day to day challenges of civilian life and their male partners reverting to their old way of thinking, they were unable to ensure whatever gains were made towards women’s rights were followed.
Above all though, since human rights are not respected in Eritrea, women in Eritrea suffer indignity like the rest of the Eritrean people if not worse. Young women like their male counterparts are enrolled indefinitely so called national service. There is no independent women’s organization in Eritrea. Those few women in high positions serve the government and have nothing to do with protecting the interests of women or advancing women’s causes. As it has been said, Eritreans continue to be deprived of their basic human rights, and women’s rights demand an even more far reaching commitment.
5. Some African leaders and academics say that the concept of democracy isn’t “African” and that we should not be working towards it as a goal. They say that trying to “force democracy on Africans” is not a valid goal because it is not in our history, cultures or the desire of the heart of our people. What is your opinion on the subject?
For anyone, African or not, to want to have a say and to want to have the right to decide in matters of basic necessity is to be human. The art of governance is a very complex one; but politicians and academics seek for easy answers rather than admit to their own failures. Actually, our African forefathers use to address issues of paramount importance to their locality under the shade of giant trees, long before the scramble for Africa.
6. What do you think is the largest challenge facing African people in general and Eritrean people specifically when it comes to understanding the link between democracy and human rights?
Africans in general and Eritreans in particular continually live in a survival mode; in a siege of fear, poverty, disease and ignorance; which makes it difficult to see beyond today. The challenge is to expect politics to be so considerate and far sighted as to form the building blocks of democracy or democratic institutions. The masses will not rise for their rights unless they are aware of their right to demand them. This being the case, the elite are being called upon to lead the way to democracy and rule of law; that means the lawyer has to stand for justice, the teacher has to teach, the journalist has to report and the media has to inform, instead of being on the safe side and adorning dictators.
7. How does the fact that there is no freedom of press in Libya, no freedom of religion in Sudan, no right to discuss varying political views in Eritrea or no equal right under the law for women in Nigerian Sharia court affect a woman living in Ireland, Canada or Austria? In short: why should women living in freedom be concerned with the human rights of someone they’ve never met on the other side of the world? How does it concretely affect their daily lives?
Putting its moral aspects aside, today’s flow of immigrants should force women on the blessed side of the globe to see the dire situation under which their counter parts are living as well as the negative impact it will have on their own freedoms. It undermines what women, through years of struggle and enormous sacrifices, have achieved thus far. Displaced women will affect the standard of living as well as social status of the host countries’ women by falling victim to cheap labor and other exploitations.
Another threat to women’s cause living in freedom is that there are plenty of men in the west who make choices that lead to the undoing of what has been gained towards equal status for women. For example, in order to avoid assertive or self aware women, western men may travel to the Far East or any place where they can exploit women, such as shop for wives or use women for pastime while on vacation. All these have health implications as well. Therefore, women living in freedom should be concerned with the human rights of someone including those they’ve never met.
8. If you could wave a magic wand over Eritrea and change one thing; what would it be?
If I could wave a magic wand over Eritrea and change one thing, it would be that no man is above the law.
I would like to thank you so much for taking the time to join me at the Round Table, Freweini! It has been a pleasure talking to you about African women, human rights and democracy. I hope you will join us again soon.
If you would like to learn more about the work that Eritreans in the Diaspora are doing to bring democracy to their country, Freweini recommends that you start at the National Conference for Democratic Change.
I’d love to hear your ideas on women, human rights and democracy. It IS a Round Table after all; so now it’s your turn to talk… Dive in and tell us your views!