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The women of Eritrea -- exploring a new status. In the midst of continuing warfare and poverty, they begin to learn how to shoulder new responsibilities -- and freedoms -- traditionally denied women in this remote corner of Ethiopia

AFRICA'S longest war -- 23 years -- is actually two wars in one. The first, and most obvious, is a war for the independence of Eritrea. Once an Italian colony, Eritrea was annexed by Ethiopia in 1962 and made into its 14th province.

Now the region's 3.5 million people are seeking autonomy. One-third of those fighting for the independence of this poverty-stricken land are said to be women.

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It is these same women who are the focal point of the other war in this land: the war for the independence of Eritrean women. Under the influence the leading resistance group, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), their lives have begun to change.

Accustomed to struggle, these Muslim women are followers of the strict Islamic law, Sharia. As Sharia is observed here, polygamy is allowed. Women are relegated to a social caste below the animals with which they are purchased as child brides. Female circumcision and infibulation at an early age help ensure a woman's chastity in marriage.

Arguing with her husband is as forbidden for a wife as is leaving the house without his consent -- or talking to strangers. A Muslim mother does not eat or drink in her husband's presence. She eats only what is left from her children's portions.

In 1978, the EPLF (the majority of whose members are Muslim but which also includes Christians and animists) outlawed child marriages and dowries, as well as inheritance traditions that left women destitute in their old age.

Under EPLF law, women can hold an equal share of the land they till with their husbands. Seminars on health care discourage the tradition of infibulation and encourage family planning.

Women have gained the right to education. In the mid-1970s, 95 percent of Eritrea's female population could not read. EPFL officials claim that number has been greatly reduced.

The group has organized women to gather in villages -- or nomadic women to rendezvous under a tree -- to learn Eritrean history as well as the alphabet. Many come with their faces loosely veiled, revealing broad smiles and the gold rings that dangle from their noses.

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The women of Eritrea found a new life with new rules when they chose to follow the EPLF.

But the majority of Eritrea's people have been left to fend for themselves. They eat berries off thorn bushes and harvest dust.

One woman, whose husband had left weeks earlier to search for food, had been walking aimlessly for days. She had just buried two of her children. She sat in the sun on the parched earth boiling water in a tin urn. Learning to read was the last thing on her mind.

``PLEASE explain to me what is the difference between a guerrilla war and a revolutionary war?'' asked Amna Chicor, who fled her village with her children when government troops burned it to the ground. Shyly, Amna talked about her present life.

``It's different,'' she said. ``My children get an education now. Had they been in Afebet [her village in central Eritrea], they would not be educated and they would always live in fear of colonialism. Now I have learned to read and I understand the problems of my country. I can communicate in a way I could not before. I can do things like our cultural shows and handicrafts. Once you get educated, you fight things, and you tell others how to fight.''

ZENOBIA fled Afebet when the weakened EPLF made its strategic withdrawal in 1978. She discarded the veils that had hid her face for half a century, learned to read, and speaks her mind with impunity. Her children and grandchildren have active roles in the EPLF. But, in the fashion of most mothers in the rebel-held territories, she claims ``all the fighters'' as her children. ``What we had in the old life was not good,'' Zenobia said in Tigre, the language of the nomadic lowland peoples. ``Our work was hard. We had to work the fields with our husbands, our babies sleeping on our backs. We would walk many hours to bring water to our homes and spend the nighttime making stews and helping the family. Then we would serve our husband tea and sit behind him without saying a word.''

Zenobia brushed her hands together as if wiping off the crumbs of her past.

``But now you see what we have accomplished. We are free to do as we please, to say what we wish, and to work where there is need. I am helping to support my children and their future by talking to people and telling them what is right. Our children used to sing, `What is the worth to marry a woman, to give birth to a woman?' and, `Just as there is no donkey with brains, so there is no woman with brains.' But now their songs are about Eritrea and their hope for freedom.''

When asked how her husband had handled her sudden emancipation, Zenobia again brushed her hands and stuck up her chin as she talked.

``Our husbands have to go through many changes. But they do it because they know it is good. They also know they must. Our children will not allow them to act the way they once did to us. . . . At our village meetings, we discuss the problems we have in coping with the war and ways of revolution. But if our husbands did not change, we could not change.''

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