Ethiopia’s constitution provides for an ethnic-based federal system of government. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed leads the Prosperity Party, which controls the government. The Prosperity Party dominated the sixth general election held on June 21, winning 96 percent of the seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives, although results were only announced for 423 of the 547 seats (77 percent). On September 30, a second round of elections took place for some constituencies where voting was delayed due to logistical or security concerns. Voting in other constituencies, including the entire Tigray Region, remained postponed indefinitely. On October 4, newly elected members of parliament took their seats. The elections took place against a backdrop of grave instability, including inter-ethnic and inter-communal violence, and an electoral process that was not free or fair for all citizens, although observers assessed the result generally reflected the will of most citizens.
National and regional police forces are responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order, with the Ethiopian National Defense Force sometimes providing internal security support. The Ethiopian Federal Police report to the Prime Minister’s Office. The Ethiopian National Defense Force reports to the Ministry of Defense. The regional governments control regional security forces, which generally operate independently from the federal government. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed numerous serious abuses.
In November 2020 fighting between the Ethiopian National Defense Forces and Tigray People’s Liberation Front Regional Security Forces resulted in protracted conflict in the northern part of the country and reports of serious and rampant abuses. The conflict spread into neighboring Amhara and Afar Regions, where serious and rampant abuses were also reported. By year’s end access to the majority of the Tigray Region remained limited, except for the regional capital of Mekele, resulting in a lack of reporting and difficulty ascertaining the extent of human rights abuses. Meanwhile political and ethnic tensions led to violence in other regions notably in Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromia, and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region – as well as credible reports of abuses of human rights throughout the year.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government; forced disappearance by the government; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious abuses in a conflict, including reportedly unlawful or widespread civilian harm, enforced disappearances or abductions, torture and physical abuses or punishments; reports of unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers by militia groups; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence or threats of violence against journalists, unjustified arrests of journalists, censorship, and the existence of criminal libel and slander laws; serious restrictions on internet freedoms; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly; serious government corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of racial or ethnic minority groups; and existence or use of laws criminalizing same-sex sexual conduct.
The government at times did not take steps to prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses or were involved in corruption, resulting in impunity for abusers due to a lack of institutional capacity. The government took some steps toward holding government security forces accountable for abuses.
There were reports of killings of civilians, rape, and other forms of gender-based violence, forced displacement, and looting and destruction of property by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Amhara regional militias, and other armed groups, and these were widespread in the context of the continuing conflict in the northern part of the county. Unnamed groups of ethnic Gumuz militants reportedly carried out attacks and killings of civilians in various part of Benishangul-Gumuz throughout the year. Local militia groups in Afar and Somali Regions reportedly carried out attacks and killings of civilians as part of a long-running regional boundary dispute in the northeast part of the country. The Oromo Liberation Army-Shane – an armed separatist group with factions in western, central, and southern Oromia – reportedly killed civilians and government officials in many parts of Oromia, especially in the west.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and provides for a penalty of five to 20 years’ imprisonment if convicted, depending on the severity of the case. The law does not expressly address spousal rape. The government did not fully enforce the law. The law generally covers violence against a marriage partner or a person cohabiting in an irregular union without specifically mentioning spousal rape. Some judges interpreted this article to cover spousal rape cases, but others overlooked such cases.
In June the EWLA announced that EWLA election observers witnessed three cases of physical assault and eight cases of sexual assault against women at polling stations during the national election. Authorities did not take any enforcement action.
There were numerous reports that parties to the conflict in the northern part of the country engaged in widespread sexual and gender-based violence (see section 1.g.).
Domestic violence is illegal, but government enforcement of the law was inconsistent. Depending on the severity of injuries inflicted, penalties for conviction ranged from small monetary fines to 15 years’ imprisonment. Domestic violence, including spousal abuse, was a pervasive social problem. According to the 2016 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), 34 percent of married women and girls between ages 15 and 49 had experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence from spouses.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law criminalizes the practice of clitoridectomy and provides for three months’ imprisonment or a monetary fine if convicted. Conviction of infibulation of the genitals (the most extreme and dangerous form of FGM/C) is punishable by five to 10 years’ imprisonment.
According to research by BioMed Central Public Health published in January, the prevalence of FGM/C among girls from birth to age 14 was 18.6 percent, representing a decline compared with 24 percent reported in the Ethiopia DHS conducted in 2005. BioMed’s research indicated FGM/C was still widely practiced across communities (16 percent among girls younger than age 14, and 65 percent among girls and women ages 15 to 49 years).
In February the EHRC stated that the COVID-19 pandemic stalled the implementation of prevention action plans against FGM/C and other harmful traditions. The EHRC also noted that Somali, Afar, the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region, and Gambella Regions made the least progress towards eliminating FGM/C.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Marriage by abduction is illegal, although it continued in some regions despite the government’s attempts to combat the practice. Abductions led to fighting among families, communities, and ethnic groups. In cases of abduction, the perpetrator did not face punishment if the survivor agreed to marry the perpetrator. The practice of forced marriage as a remedy for rape continued, although rape and forced marriage are illegal. These crimes were difficult to prosecute, however, since they were usually settled outside courts of law. Some communities forced rapists to marry the survivor to protect her family’s reputation. Rapists who married survivors escaped punishment and might also benefit from a lowered bride price demanded by the survivor’s family.
Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment was widespread. The law prescribes penalties of 18 to 24 months’ imprisonment, but authorities generally did not enforce the law. During the year the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions in collaboration with EWLA established a gender-based violence/sexual harassment reporting desk in several industrial parks.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. The constitution protects the rights of women to access family planning resources and safeguard their health during pregnancy and childbirth. Social and cultural barriers, however, limited women’s access to reproductive health services. According to the 2016 DHS, 85 percent of married or in-union women in the country made decisions on their health care; 94 percent had autonomy in deciding to use contraception; but only 53 percent could refuse to have sex with their partners. Overall, only 45 percent of married or in-union women ages 15 to 49 made their own decisions in all three key areas of sexual and reproductive health and rights: deciding on their own health care, deciding on the use of contraception, and saying no to sex. While 53 percent of married or in-union women reported being able to say no to sex, the law does not protect this right. According to the 2016 DHS, 61 percent of women of reproductive age had access to family planning with modern methods. According to 2018 World Health Organization (WHO) data, the country had an adolescent birth rate (per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19) of 79.5. Despite nationwide access to contraception, negative cultural stigma around premarital sex reduced utilization of contraception. Transportation problems in remote areas of the country also reduced utilization of contraception. According to a small-scale DHS in 2019, the modern contraception prevalence rate was 41 percent, up from 35 percent in 2016. Prevalence and utilization of contraception varied widely among regions.
Skilled health personnel attended 28 percent of births according to 2019 WHO data. Although the government provided free maternal and child health services, challenges from resource constraints and poor transportation in remote areas persisted for women in accessing skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth. Lack of skilled health attendance during pregnancy correlated with the country’s high maternal mortality rate – 401 deaths per 100,000 live births according to 2017 WHO data. Major causes of maternal mortality included hemorrhage, obstructed labor/ruptured uterus, pregnancy-induced hypertension, sepsis, and unsafe abortion.
Girls and women who have had FGM/C were significantly more likely to have adverse obstetric outcomes, including maternal death (see FGM/C sub-subsection for additional information). While access to some sexual and reproductive health services was available for survivors of gender-based violence at public-sector facilities, more comprehensive services for survivors – including legal and judicial support – were limited. Survivors of gender-based violence in areas impacted by the conflict in the northern part of the country faced lasting medical and mental health complications due to a lack of sexual and reproductive health services associated with the destruction of medical facilities and limitations on humanitarian access.
Social and cultural barriers related to menstruation and access to menstruation hygiene, as well as pregnancy and motherhood, limited girls’ access to education. According to a 2017 UNICEF regional survey, 11 to 46 percent of girls missed between one and seven days of school a month due to menstruation, depending on the region in which they lived. The girls surveyed attributed their absences to lack of adequate hygiene facilities at school and embarrassment due to cultural stigma regarding menstruation. UNICEF also cited early pregnancy as a key factor that kept girls out of school, especially in rural areas.
Discrimination: The law gives equal rights to women and men. Women and men have the same rights entering marriage, during marriage, and at the time of divorce. Discrimination against women was widespread. It was most acute in rural areas, where an estimated 80 percent of the population lived. Traditional courts applied customary law in economic and social relationships.
All federal and regional land laws empower women to access government land. Inheritance laws enable widows to inherit joint property acquired during marriage; however, enforcement of both legal provisions was uneven.
Women’s access to gainful employment, credit, and the opportunity to own or manage a business was limited by fewer educational opportunities and by legal restrictions on women’s employment. These restrictions include limitations on working in occupations deemed dangerous and in specific industries such as mining and agriculture. There were several initiatives aimed at increasing women’s access to these critical economic empowerment tools.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
There were reports of violence against LGBTQI+ persons; however, reporting was limited due to fear of retribution, discrimination, or stigmatization. There are no hate crime laws or other criminal justice mechanisms to aid in the investigation of abuses against LGBTQI+ persons. Individuals generally did not publicly identify themselves as LGBTQI+ due to severe societal stigma and the illegality of consensual same-sex sexual conduct. Activists in the LGBTQI+ community reported surveillance and feared for their safety. The law does not prohibit discrimination by state and nonstate actors against LGBTQI+ persons.
Consensual same-sex sexual conduct is illegal, and conviction is punishable by three to 15 years’ imprisonment. No law prohibits discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons. There were no reports of persons incarcerated or prosecuted for engaging in consensual same-sex sexual conduct.