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Women Battle for Rights in Eritrea

Treated as equals during the war, female veterans often are forced by a male-dominated society back into old, second-class roles.

DURING Eritrea's 30-year struggle for independence from Ethiopia, women threw off their veils and fought alongside men. Making up one-third of the 100,000-strong rebel force, they fired rifles, drove military trucks, and won respect for their prowess in battle.

Five years after winning the war, women are still fighting - this time for equal rights.

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Many complain that in what is one of Africa's most traditional societies, old attitudes die hard.

"You cannot say attitudes have changed," says Askalu Menkorios, a former fighter who is president of the National Union of Eritrean Women. "Our society respected and highly valued women fighters," Ms. Menkorios says. "But since independence, many men expect them to be just like other women."

It is an uncomfortable issue for the rulers of Eritrea, the former fighters of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), which won its war against dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 with a battle cry of equality.

In the process of using women to fight in battle, traditional customs were overturned.

Girls were educated. Women won the right to vote, divorce, and choose their own husbands. Short trousers and bushy Afro haircuts were found more practical than traditional long dresses and hair. Ritual female genital mutilation, widely practiced among Eritrea's population, which is split 50-50 between Christians and Muslims, was discouraged for health reasons (in many cases it can lead to mortality during childbirth and other problems).

The EPLF, reborn as the People's Front for Democracy and Justice government, can show some strides for women. It has pushed land ownership for women. The ministers of justice and tourism are women, as is about one-quarter of the parliament. Women head the key departments of ports and communications and civil service.

But male government ministers will readily admit not enough has been done on the local level, particularly in remote Muslim villages where war heroines have returned home to the same paternalistic society they left behind.

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Government officials say that, try as they may to discourage female genital mutilation, or circumcision, the practice is as popular as ever among those who believe that women who have not undergone it are unfit for marriage.

Because of Eritrea's widespread poverty, women do not have time to learn to read or acquire skills. A constant sight across the country is women on foot lugging firewood or water for miles, often with babies in tow.

"These are big problems. Village women work up to 18 hours a day preparing food, rearing children, fetching water. More than 90 percent are illiterate, but they do not have time to attend classes. This hinders their development," Menkorios says.

This lack of literacy and training works against women when it comes to assigning jobs, says Tekle-Michael Giorgis, head of the Relief and Rehabilitation Department, which oversees the re-entry into civilian life of 60,000 former soldiers. "There are not many training or employment options for women," he admits.

Even when work is given to women, it does not guarantee emancipation. Saleh Meky, minister of marine resources, cites a program in which 300 Muslim women were given work collecting valuable seashells along the Red Sea coast. "The women complain that their menfolk take the money," he says. "The women stand there all day bent over in the sun, getting weak from the heat. Then they never see a penny."

Such is the case of Zena, a young woman who makes fishing nets under a government program to provide work for women. "The money? It all goes to my parents and three brothers," she says from behind her veil.

There are some happy tales of those who shrug at convention and succeed. Abeba Haile learned to play various musical instruments at a rebel camp in the desert when she was a girl. When the war ended, she replaced her Kalashnikov rifle for a bass guitar and formed a band of female former fighters that is now one of Eritrea's most popular music groups.

In an interview in the home she shares with her parents, she says it was a feminist choice, as is remaining single at an age when most Eritrean women already have several children. "Women have to stand up for themselves," she explains.

She shows videotapes of her recent concerts in Europe, where she looks like any Western pop star, strutting across the stage in a sequined miniskirt. Her mother sits wrapped in an embroidered white shawl, making coffee in the traditional welcoming ceremony as women have for centuries. She gazes at her daughter proudly.

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