Eritrean ambassador fights for women’s rights after years fighting a war
Eritrea on Friday joined citizens of more than 20 countries in celebrating International Women’s Day as a public holiday. The annual event strikes a particular chord for women in the Horn of Africa, who have struggled not only to obtain equal rights but independence. Hanna Simon, the Eritrean ambassador to France, says the fight for gender equality is steeped in the fight for freedom.
"The struggle is never over," says Hanna Simon, in reference to the decades-old war between Eritrea and Ethiopia that thawed only last year.
“Yes, now we have peace after being at loggerheads for more than 20 years. But now that peace is here, we are all trying to get the maximum from this peace; first of all to maintain it."
Women, she says, have an important role to play. They have been active since the struggle for independence against Ethiopia, with up to 30 percent of them taking part in the war effort, including Simon herself.
"We were five siblings to join the struggle," says the former freedom fighter turned ambassador. "Two of my brothers died there for the country."
The Eritrean rebellion against Ethiopian rule was led by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), a Marxist insurgent movement.
"I saw some women, many women in fact who were with the fighting forces and I asked them, how is it, and they explained. And I understood this was my place. I said I have to serve my country," comments Simon.
Today, she is doing so as Eritrea's ambassador to France, a position she's held since July 2014.
Her past struggles nonetheless still inform Simon's opinion when it comes to tackling gender inequality, a notion she admits was absent during her upbringing.
"My mother was very strong. My father kept the family, she too kept the family, and we didn’t know anything about gender segregation."
It wasn't until she joined the struggle and later entered the world of work that Simon discovered the meaning of "double oppression."
"Suddenly I realized there is double exploitation," as a woman, and a black woman at that.
What advice does she give to girls and other women to overcome such hurdles?
"I want to tell them that we have only to fight ourselves, not any other person.
We had the will to snatch our independence." To achieve gender equality, the same sheer willpower will be needed.
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