The girls and families living through war in Ethiopia

By Kerri Whelan
July 29, 2021
Since November 2020, violence across Tigray region in northern Ethiopia has forced more than a million people from their homes. Most are still living within Tigray, finding shelter where they can in host communities and displacement camps where conditions are dismal — bedding, hygiene services, food and clean water are all in short supply.
Aster, age 16, has been displaced from her home in the Tigray region.

Girls and women face additional risks and are in urgent need of life-saving health, protection and support services. Sexual violence is rampant. And their well-being is further threatened by food insecurity, the spread of COVID-19 and a lack of fully-functioning health facilities.

Debaka, age 12, lives in a displacement camp with her aunt.

Malnutrition among children under age 5, pregnant and breastfeeding women is increasing at an alarming rate. Tigist, age 22, lives in a displacement camp in the Amhara region with her family — both her children are in poor health from hunger.

Tigist is concerned about the health of her two children.

“After we took shelter at the camp, my daughter fell ill with pneumonia and I had to take her to the nearby health station three times so that she could be treated,” Tigist says. “The doctor at the health station paid from his own pocket for the treatment of my daughter.”

Tigist’s husband Sintayehu spends each day looking for work in the nearby town. Sometimes he gets odd jobs as a day laborer or house painter and uses the money he earns to buy food for his family.

Before the conflict, Tigist and her husband Sintayehu ran a small bakery in their hometown in Tigray region. Their business was doing well and they made a good living. But when the fighting began, they were forced to leave everything behind and travel across the desert on foot to reach safety.

For girls and young women living in displacement camps, managing their periods is an added challenge. “When I was in Tigray, I was able to buy pads,” a 14-year-old girl named Worke says. “Since there is no money now, I cannot buy them.”

“We mainly receive wheat which we roast to eat as our meal, but it’s hard to eat the same thing every day,” Worke tells us.

Worke also says that she and her friends have had humiliating experiences in the camp while on their periods. “If a menstruating girl sits on a bench and leaves a blood mark on it, no one will sit on it again.”

Girls like Worke and her friends experience stigma when they get their periods.

Another woman named Tigist, age 25, fled on foot with her two children to escape violence and seek safety. She isn’t sure if her husband is still alive. She says, “My elder daughter is a fourth-grade student. She resumed her studies after we arrived here, but goes to school every morning without any breakfast. My three-year-old son is also suffering from malnutrition.”

Tigist, age 25, with her 3-year-old son who is malnourished.

“Generally, we are leading a very difficult life here,” Tigist says. “We have lost many of our relatives due to the conflict. Previously we were able to support ourselves but now we are relying on donations.”

Tigist wants to resettle back in her home village with her two children.

Thousands of children are currently separated from their parents as a result of the conflict. A 13-year-old girl named Bilen lives on her own in an overcrowded camp in the Amhara region. She told Plan staff that one of her biggest concerns is hunger. “I eat nothing else but wheat every day — it’s also not enough for one person,” she says. “It is very difficult to find food in this camp.”

Bilen looks out at the Simien Mountains from the displacement camp.

In the displacement camp where Bilen lives, Plan International helped children receive educational materials so that they can continue their studies. Bilen was also helped to enroll at the town’s elementary school and is now finally able to start sixth grade.

A Plan child protection in emergency officer speaks to Bilen about her needs.

“At my age, I feel sad at being exposed to so much suffering and danger,” Bilen says. “Many girls and young children like me have been forced to interrupt their education due to a shortage of food and the absence of any support … Our country should extend their helping hands to us. I want to be a nurse after I finish my studies because I want to help people who are in distress like I am now.”

Plan International is working in camps in Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions to improve the living conditions for children and their families and address child protection concerns. We are providing training and support to health care workers to help them screen and treat cases of malnutrition in children under age 5. We are also distributing hygiene kits to families which include water purifier tablets and soap, as well as providing girls with menstrual pads and underwear to help them manage their periods. Continued support from people like you is urgently needed to help children and families who are displaced in Ethiopia.


Bilen’s name has been changed to protect her identity.