United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and other humanitarian agencies have raised a red flag over the high cases of gender-based violence (GBV) in Tigray region of Ethiopia.
The agencies, in a joint statement, noted that amid a worsening humanitarian situation in Tigray, reports of indiscriminate and targeted attacks against civilians, including rape and other forms of sexual violence continue.
"We call on all State and non-State parties to the conflict to fulfil their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law; ensure their forces respect and protect civilian populations, particularly women and children, from all human rights abuses; explicitly condemn all sexual violence; and take action to bring perpetrators to justice where abuses do occur," says the statement in part.
The agencies revealed that women and children in affected areas are reporting challenges in accessing health, social welfare and justice services.
They noted that assessments undertaken in some health facilities, including Mekelle, Adigrat and Shire, show gaps in premises' security, as well as staffing, services and supplies.
Initial assessments of 106 facilities in Tigray between December 2020 and March 2021 showed that only 13 per cent of facilities were functional with nearly 70 per cent looted and 30 per cent damaged.
Health services have also been rendered less functional by the displacement of healthcare workers, in addition to non-payment of salaries.
Childhood vaccination services were observed in only 28 per cent of facilities and comprehensive nutrition services available in approximately 29 per cent of functioning facilities.
"Only one facility provides the full range of services for clinical management of rape survivors, and emergency contraception is fully available in less than half of the facilities assessed. The lack of direct access to health care also creates an environment of fear accessing health care, especially for women and children, who are already facing frequent and severe security threats and displacement," the agencies say in the statement.
They also raised concerns that many displaced civilians are sheltering in unfinished or damaged buildings, and most collective centres, which do not include separate spaces or latrines for women and men, girls and boys, increasing risks of gender-based violence (GBV) and the spread of certain infectious diseases.
The agencies noted that preventing and responding to the grave human suffering resulting from this conflict will require a concerted effort.
They called for an independent investigation into conflict-related sexual violence in Tigray, with the involvement of the UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The agencies noted that if given the access and resources, they would make the needed response interventions to save and transform lives, including health services and supplies, GBV management, dignity kits, post-rape treatment, and safe spaces for women and children.
Given the deep trauma many have experienced, they said support for mental health and psychosocial needs will also be required.
"It is only with comprehensive effort, fully grounded in respect for human rights and international humanitarian law, that the humanitarian response in Tigray will match the scale of humanitarian need, especially for women and children," the statement adds.
In January, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned that the fresh conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa could lead to a sharp increase in Covid-19 cases in refugee camps if no urgent measures are taken.
Fighting has ravaged northern Ethiopia since November last year when the government opened a military offensive against the ruling faction in the region of Tigray. This started a conflict that has caused thousands of deaths and widespread destruction, displaced more than two million people, and sent tens of thousands of refugees into neighbouring Sudan.
The statement was signed by officials from UNDP, UNHCR, United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), World Health Organisation (WHO), International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) among others.