Discriminatory Legal Systems
In 2000, the United Nations (UN) Security Council passed a historic resolution as its clarion call for ending sexual violence in conflict. This Resolution, SCR 1325, as well as the succeeding Resolutions, that together form the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Resolutions recognized the gender-specific impact of conflict and historic gender discrimination in criminal accountability for sexual violence in conflict, and underscored the need for women to participate in post conflict reconstruction. The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence (the Summit) has been convened to create a “sense of irreversible movement to end the use of rape and sexual violence in conflict” and, therefore, is a time to assess how the WPS Resolutions have translated into protections for women during conflict.
Using the current conflict situation in Burma as a test of the WPS Resolutions demonstrates how ineffective they have been in providing protection and remedy for women on the ground during conflict. Despite the mandates of the WPS Resolutions, credible evidence continues to indicate that the military uses sexual violence against ethnic women in Burma as a means to assert its authority and to destroy ethnic communities. The military continues to operate with Constitutionally-sanctioned impunity for its actions. Moreover, current peace negotiations, intended to end decades of ethnic conflict, have almost completely failed to include women, especially ethnic women.
Updating State National Action Plans to Ensure the International Humanitarian Rights of Women and Girls Raped in Armed Conflict
On the occasion of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, the Global Justice Center encourages States to exercise global leadership on the protection of women and girls raped in armed conflict by updating their National Action Plans (NAPs) to include explicit language accepting their international humanitarian law obligations to provide non-discriminatory medical care, justice, and reparations to war rape victims.
Women and girls raped in war are among the “war wounded,” therefore protected under international humanitarian law (IHL) by the absolute prohibition on adverse distinction, including on the basis of sex. In reality, however, women and girls raped in war are regularly subjected to discrimination in the medical care they receive and in the justice, accountability, and reparations measures available to them. The prohibition against adverse distinction applies to how all IHL rules are implemented, and it is so fundamental that it constitutes customary international law. Adverse distinction is interchangeable with the term “non-discrimination:” in all cases IHL cannot be implemented in ways that are “less favorable” for women than men.
How the US is Blocking Access to Safe Abortion Services for Women and Girls Impregnated by Rape in Syria
Throughout the Syrian conflict, Syrian government forces and government-controlled militia (Shabiha) have reigned terror over the civilian population. Alma, a victim of this violence, describes being held in a cell where she would kick and scream alongside 20 other women while they were drugged, blindfolded, and gang-raped.
In the worst embodiment of this campaign, rape is used as a weapon of war against Syrian women and girls. Alma continues, “I’ve been through everything! I’ve been battered, flogged with steel cables, had cigarettes in the neck, razor blades all over my body, electricity to my vagina. I’ve been raped while blindfolded everyday by several men who stank of alcohol and obeyed their superior’s orders, who was always there. They shouted: ‘You wanted freedom? Well here it is!’” A different victim illustrates the scene at a Syrian detention center in which a doctor visited each woman’s cell to note the dates of her period and to hand out birth control pills: “[w]e lived in filth, in blood, in [feces], with no water and barely any food. But we had such an obsessive fear of becoming pregnant that we took these pills scrupulously.” Still other victims of these crimes against humanity described situations in which their “bodies have become battlefields and torture chambers.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – April 30, 2014
[NEW YORK, NY] – On Thursday, April 24 2014, the Global Justice Center, together with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Amnesty International and the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security hosted a side event to the Security Council Open Debate on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. The interactive panel included distinguished guests such as Naw K’nyaw Paw, Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization and grassroots activist working on empowering women and assisting sexual violence survivors in Burma; H.E. Zainab Bangura, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict; and H.E. David Donoghue, Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations. The panel was moderated by Nicole Bjerler of Amnesty International.
United Nations Stakeholders Alerted of Continued Use of Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War in Burma's Ethnic Areas
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - April 24, 2014
[NEW YORK, NY] - Today, at a side-event to the Security Council’s annual debate on conflict-related sexual violence, the United Nations was presented with a troubling account of continuing sexual violence committed by the military against ethnic women in Burma. On the eve of the April 25 debate, Ms. Naw K’nyaw Paw, Secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization, presented compelling reports of heinous crimes committed by the military and called on the United Nations, international donors and governments to investigate these human rights violations, denounce the use of sexual violence in Burma and support women’s groups on the ground who are attempting to combat this pervasive pattern of abuse.
Global Justice Center calls on International Criminal Court to Investigate Genocide of Chibok Schoolgirls
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – April 14, 2014
[NEW YORK, NY] – On the night of April 14th, 2014, 276 Nigerian schoolgirls were abducted from their boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The abduction ignited worldwide outrage, sparked a vigorous social media campaign to #BringBackOurGirls, and drew condemnation from political leaders around the world.
Yesterday in the inspiring and informative event, “What Success Looks Like on the Ground,” women leaders from Burma, Haiti, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo gathered to discuss their personal experiences in combating sexual violence in conflict. The panel was a side event to the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).
It was moving to hear directly from local women leaders who battle everyday with their governments, militaries, other institutions, and social mores. Together they painted a stark picture of the very real difficulties women face in armed conflict zones around the world, as well as lessons they have learned in working against sexual violence and in supporting survivors.
Panel speaker Julia Marip, from the Women’s League of Burma, noted that “when women have been raped, they suffer twice: once at the rape and again when they become pregnant.” Ms. Marip then pointed out that not only is abortion illegal in Burma, but also that reforming laws – including those criminalizing abortion – is overly difficult due to the constitution’s discrimination against women and the military’s embedded position within the government. She also emphasized the importance of having women at the political table in order to improve the lives of women, including by ending rape and increasing accountability. Ms. Marip and her organization, the Women’s League of Burma, recently launched a report on sexual violence in their country,Same Impunity, Same Pattern: Report of Systematic Sexual Violence in Burma’s Ethnic Areas, about which the Global Justice Center hosted an event and wrote an article.
Similarly, Leonie Kyakimwa Wangivirwa, an activist working with women survivors of sexual violence in Congo, spoke of the power of women to end sexual violence in conflict. She called for solidarity, saying that women around the world “must band together as survivors if we want to fix this on a global level rather than go case by case.” She further urged the world to end the crisis in Congo – one of the world’s longest running conflicts – saying that the Congolese “are begging the people who are bringing war to us to take it away.” Without this step, she explained, sexual violence would continue.
Leonie then described the consequences of the ongoing sexual violence in her country, including the suffering of women with unwanted pregnancies from rape, who are often shunned by their families, and the dangers and difficulties that face children born of rape. An audience member from the Congo, Justine Masika Bihamba, of Women’s Synergy for Victims of Sexual Violence, echoed Leonie’s point, reporting that “every day we are losing women to suicide who have become pregnant from rape.”
Zeinab Blandia, of the Vision Association in Sudan, shared her experiences advocating against sexual violence in her country, and explained that where peace has been established in areas of Sudan, the situation for women has improved. Like her fellow panelists, Zeinab called on the international community to help bring the conflict in her country to an end. She said that if the war and its associated violence against women were to continue, it would be a “shame on the international community and on CSW.”
The panel also touched upon successes combating sexual violence in Haiti, where the 2010 earthquake left women and girls increasingly vulnerable to sexual attacks. The event highlighted the work of KOFAVIV (Commission of Women Victims for Victims), a grassroots organization run by women survivors of sexual violence that supports other women survivors in Haiti. Marie Eramithe Delva, executive secretary of KOFAVIV, recounted the success of their campaign distributing whistles to women and girls in the displaced person camps of Port-au-Prince, noting that in at least one camp it had led to a drastic reduction in the number of reported rapes.
The Global Justice Center (GJC) is grateful to have heard these women leaders speak of their experiences and advice for combating sexual violence and supporting survivors. We believe our vision of success on the ground mirrors their calls for justice and accountability for rape in armed conflict, for increased participation of women in government and peace negotiations, and for expanded and non-discriminatory access to sexual and reproductive health services. GJC is eager to partner with women leaders such as these, as it has done with Ms. Bihamba, whose organization sent a letter to President Obama as part of GJC’s August 12th Campaign, urging him to lift the ban on abortions attached to U.S. humanitarian aid. For further information on GJC and its projects, please visit:http://www.globaljusticecenter.net.
Letter to Secretary Hillary Clinton, April 2012, Re: US Security Council Presidency and Next Steps on Myanmar/Burma
Tuesday, January 14, 2014 13:15 - 14:30
Women's League of Burma Report Launch: "Same Pattern, Same Impunity," hosted by the Nobel Women's Inititave and the Global Justice Center.
Julia Marip, Joint General-Secretary, Women's League of Burma
Janet Benshoof, President, Global Justice Center
Pablo Castillo-Diaz, Protection Specialist, UN Women
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - January 13, 2014
[RANGOON, CHIANG MAI/ NEW YORK, NY] - Today marks the launch of an important new report documenting ongoing crimes of sexual violence—over 100 cases documented since 2010, including 47 gang rapes—perpetrated by the Burmese military in ethnic regions of Burma.
On January 13, 2014, GJC staff members Akila Radhakrishnan and Michelle Onello published an article on the Women Under Siege project blog, titled on new reports detailing ongoing sexualized violence in Burma.
Click here to read the full article.
On November 13th, governments, UN heads, international NGOs and civil society organizations gathered in London to develop a fundamental new approach to violence against women and girls (VAWG) in emergency situations, both man-made and natural disasters. These leading humanitarian agencies met to endorse a global commitment acknowledging that, “prevention and response to VAWG in emergencies is life-saving and should be prioritized from the outset of an emergency, alongside other life-saving interventions.” Nine donor governments (including the UK, US, Australia, Sweden and Japan), six UN agencies, the ICRC, the International Organization for Migration and 21 international NGOs endorsed a communiqué outlining future action and commitments.
When the rule of law crumbles, one of the first things that happen is women become the targets of violence. In times of disaster, such as the recent crisis in the Phillippines, hundreds of thousands of women and girls will become dramatically more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse, rape, forced marriage and trafficking. Experience has shown that every single humanitarian crisis puts women and girls at great risk, yet during the first stage of an emergency, targeted interventions for VAWG are not prioritized because the violence is not considered life-threatening, according to UK Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening. Child sponsorship data collected in Bangladesh in 2012 revealed that 62% of children under 18 who had married in the previous five years did so during the 2007 Cyclone Sidr. 18 months after the earthquake in Haiti, sexual abuse and exploitation were widespread because girls and women could not get the goods and services needed to survive. Furthermore, the rates of unwanted pregnancies, maternal mortality, disability, unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted infections including HIV, rise during times of displacement and economic hardship. Thus this Call to Action is built around recognizing that the prevention and response to VAWG is life-saving and must be prioritized, not as an afterthought but as standard practice.
These discussions have put forth the political will to take concrete steps to fundamentally influence systemic change while also addressing the root causes of VAWG. According to Julia Drost, policy and advocacy associate in women’s human rights at Amnesty International USA, “addressing gender-based violence can’t just be done in emergencies; it has to occur 24/7 and involve all government entities working overseas.” Which is why the commitments made by UN agencies, governments, donors and NGOs were framed as just the beginning of a process for improving the protection of women and girls in emergencies. These commitments aim to ensure that efforts to prevent and respond to VAWG become standard practice and result in real, positive change through the implementation of an accountability framework.
The humanitarian community has historically not prioritized the protection of women and girls in emergencies claiming lack of funding or lack of trained specialists. In order to reform the humanitarian community’s response to violence against women and girls in emergencies, this Call to Action will involve researching the historical challenges of implementing gender-based violence programs and address them with innovative techniques and sustained commitments.
Responding to VAWG in the first 72 hours of an emergency is a central focus of this initiative as well as sexual and reproductive health services, effective measures to eliminate impunity for the perpetrators of violence, empowering women and girls as a means and an end for tackling VAWG and proactively linking the work being done by the UK government and internationally to ensure commitments made complement existing initiatives. Other important commitments include identifying 20 priority countries that should be adequately stocked with post-rape treatment supplies by 2015; creating new posts in response teams for gender-violence experts; installing solar street lamps in camps and settlements; and increasing funding for gender-based violence initiatives.
UK Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening.
Another positive aspect of these discussions were that The Department for International Development (DFID) announced £21.6 million in new funding to protect women and girls in emergencies. In comparison to the United States’ Safe from the Start initiative to address gender-based violence in global humanitarian emergencies announced on September 23rd, UK provisions for humanitarian aid are able to provide a life-saving service that the U.S. program is not – access to safe and voluntary abortion for rape victims. Thus, the UK-funded medical care will be able to address the distinct needs of women and children in disasters, providing safe and non-discriminatory access to humanitarian assistance.
Tentative optimism is circulating around this event, with the hopes it can put forth measurable improvements by being prepared rather than reactionary when a disaster strikes. According to Sweden’s International Development Minister and event co-chair Hillevi Engström, “empowerment and protection should go hand in hand.” By focusing on gender inequity, the root causes of violence against women and garnering enough support from donors and humanitarian actors, this Call to Action has the potential make significant progress in filling the gap in disaster planning. Now, where do we go from here? Ms. Engström commented, “We have all the paperwork, polices and resolutions in place. But implementation is the weakest link in the chain. It’s time to stop talking and start acting.” As we are starting to see change and increasing attention to gender-based violence in crisis situations, let’s help give women and girls what they deserve – power, not pity.
The event was hosted by Secretary Hague and Zainab Hawa Bangura, special representative of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict, and included speakers from 27 member countries who discussed the need to prevent and respond to sexualized violence committed under the cloak of war. They also highlighted the devastating effects that rape and sexualized violence wreak on individuals, families, communities, and entire nations.
By the end of the day, 113 member countries had endorsed what Secretary Hague called the “milestone” Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The declaration holds that sexualized violence in conflict is in direct violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) and declares that the perpetrators should be pursued and arrested no matter where they are in the world. The declaration also calls upon signatory member states to do more than raise awareness to the issue and to provide better support not only to the victims but to national and international efforts to prevent and respond to sexualized violence in conflict.
But 80 nations opted not to sign the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. One of them was Burma.
For many, Burma’s refusal to sign the declaration didn’t come as a surprise. Reports of sexualized violence committed by the army and police, particularly in Burma’s ethnic and border regions, have increased over the last two years, according to some advocacy groups. And Burma President Thein Sein has done little to address the issue, preferring to highlight gains made in other sectors, including the opening of the economy to global investment and his periodic release of political prisoners.
The international community, eager to praise these reforms, has neglected to call Burma out on its sexualized violence problem, ignoring the ingrained culture of impunity that has allowed sexualized violence to flourish for decades. The military regime that came to power in a 1962 coup has used rape, particularly against women in the ethnic and border regions, as a way to quell opposition movements and retain control. A weapon of war, the practice is typically employed to keep communities compliant by sowing fear and humiliation and punishing and interrogating those who would support opposition groups. Sadly, the Burmese military junta’s campaign of widespread and systematic sexual violence continues unabated today.
It’s understandable, then, that President Thein Sein and his new admirers would not want to tarnish fragile gains, but how much do these gains really mean in the face of continued sexualized violence toward women and girls in Burmese conflict zones?
Burma President Thein Sein speaks at Chatham House in July. (Chatham House)
This is precisely why Burma’s failure to stand with 113 other nations in signing the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was such a disappointment. More than just a squandered opportunity for the nation to demonstrate an honest and ongoing desire for social and political reform, it was a chance to turn the tide, to announce an end to the culture of silence and impunity that legitimizes rape and sexual violence in Burma.
Human rights groups in and outside of Burma were quick to condemn the government’s failure to sign on to the Declaration.
Zoya Phan, Campaigns Manager at Burma Campaign UK, said, “The use of rape and sexual violence in conflict in Burma must be stopped. If Thein Sein refuses to cooperate, then international legal action should be taken to prevent these crimes. For many ethnic women, rape by Burmese army soldiers is a daily fear, and justice seems to be just a distant dream.”
“The government should bear the responsibility of crimes perpetrated by its army. They should ensure justice for such crimes in accordance with the law,” Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, Central Committee member of the Myanmar Women’s Network, told the 2013 Myanmar Women’s Forum prior to the UN event.
The Burmese Diplomatic Mission to the UN in New York declined to comment by telephone and did not reply to email requests for an official statement on their failure to sign the declaration.
But it’s hard to fault the Mission for their non-answer; after all, they’re simply following President Thein Sein’s lead in ignoring the issue. One of the biggest stumbling blocks in Burma’s transition to civilian rule has been the government’s unwillingness to fully divest itself of the privileged status of the previous military junta. In fact, this lack of accountability is hard-wired into the country’s constitution, rendering the nation incapable of enforcing IHL against its military, as the Global Justice Center’s President Janet Benshoof has noted.
Ultimately, last week’s missed opportunity can be seen as less a statement on Burma’s disinterest in ending government-sanctioned sexualized violence and more an appraisal of Burma’s transition to democracy. To assent to the UN’s declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict would be to assent to accountability and to a new era of checks and balances for a government whose members seem more concerned with losing a seat at the table than addressing the issue being discussed at the table.
Perhaps this is only another hiccup on the road to reformation. Perhaps Burma will relent and commit to the mandates of the declaration. But, in the meantime, the girls and women of Burma will continue to be victimized without means of redress or protection, and the body count will continue to rise.
A version of this article was cross-posted with Women Under Siege.
On October 23, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights, Tomas Ojea Quintana, released the latest report on the Situation on Human Rights in Myanmar for the General Assembly’s sixty-eighth session. The report had been highly anticipated by civil society groups who are concerned with growing tensions in the turbulent nation.
Mr. Quintana, incidentally, had a closer look at that tension than he’d likely anticipated recently when, during an unpleasant trip to the Rakhine state, the lack of a government security detail led to him being accosted by an angry mob. (Burmese President, Thein Sein’s almost comical response was to insist that the mob had actually been trying to present the UN official with a letter and a t-shirt.)
It was of little surprise, then, that the Special Rapporteur’s update highlighted the urgent need for continued reforms. 2013 has seen a growing chorus of international approval for Burma’s incremental human rights gains but, let’s face it, when the forced relocation of entire ethnic villages into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps ranks among the less distressing human rights events of the year, things really haven’t improved much in Burma.
Accusations of political violence and discrimination have continued to plague the Sein administration; particularly harrowing have been the reports from Burma’s ethnic and border regions, where political opposition groups continue to be victimized by the state’s brutal military and police. Accusations of sexual violence, forced labor, human trafficking, the recruitment of child soldiers, use of prisoners as human mine sweepers, arbitrary arrests, extortion, land confiscation, denial and revocation of citizenship, and restrictions on movement, religion, and marriage, have been lobbed at the Sein administration from all directions.
That these atrocities continue despite 23 years of calls for reform indicates something’s not working. Even 2008’s new national constitution did little more than rebrand the brutal ruling military junta, who have effectively cowed the world into believing that Burma is ever on the brink of becoming overwhelmed with the reform process, prepared to revert to the hermit kingdom they once were. As a result, the timid international community is content to cajole the Burmese government into accepting piecemeal reforms that have done little to change a culture of intimidation, impunity, and deadly violence.
It seems more obvious now than ever, any real solution lies fundamentally deeper than reform at the symptom level. Comprehensive constitutional reform that divests the former military junta of its continuing grip on power in Burma by imposing civilian controls is the only option.
Mr. Quintana appears to agree. This week’s report includes numerous unambiguous statements on the need for constitutional reforms. Alongside calls for quotas to boost women’s participation in state and local decision-making and for an independent judiciary were denunciations of constitutionally-sanctioned impunity and discrimination. That Mr. Quintana, for the first time, pointed out specific enabling constitutional articles hopefully signals the UN has had enough of Burma’s half measures.
The futility of incremental reforms has been noted inside Burma, to be sure. The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has seen its calls for an amended or completely redrawn national constitution gain momentum within the country recently and Burma’s multitude of ethnic minorities have begun to demand a seat at the table in an effort to help determine their own fate.
NLD leader and Nobel peace prize winner, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has now asked the international community to help democracy activists in Burma to amend the Constitution; she urged world leaders, including the European Union and the United States, to continue to put pressure of the Burmese government saying, “Reform has gone as far as it can without changes to the constitution.”
This push has also been championed by women’s rights groups within Burma and around the world who urge fundamental reforms are needed to address Burma’s constitutional deficiencies, such as the lack of a substantial equality guarantee which effectively excludes ethnic women from political participation. The 2008 document even shockingly includes a provision proclaiming males should be appointed to “positions that are naturally suited for men.”
A multitude of official world bodies have also repeatedly highlighted the need for constitutional reforms. Until recently, though, most have done so with glancing blows, failing to connect on the most fundamental issue, the Burmese military’s constitutionally guaranteed stake in governing the country. Until this metric is fundamentally rewritten, there will be no accountability for a government that routinely eviscerates the basic human rights of its own citizens in order to maintain its grip on power.
With the UN now seemingly on board, the next steps on the human rights situation in Burma are clear: The international community must cease lauding President Thein Sein for plodding political and economic reforms calculated to insulate the ruling regime, and attack the fundamental dynamic that sustains a culture of bloodshed in Burma. They must insist on targeted constitutional reforms that will allow full and robust participation in Burma’s government by all of its peoples. Anything less at this late stage would amount to a tacit approval of the wholesale slaughter of innocent women, children and men.
All the talk this week will be whether the United States will launch air strikes on Syria, in the wake of the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in the country’s ongoing civil war. During yesterday’s Senate hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry made the case that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has committed egregious human rights violations, including the violation of one of the most important norms of international law: the ban of using weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) against civilians. President Obama emphasized that potential US strikes is about protecting this fundamental international norm, which is threatened by the Syrian government’s alleged gassing of its own people. Yet, Syria has long been in a state of unrest – and the Global Justice Center takes a look a few other areas in which Syria is violating international law, particularly when it comes to equal protection and rights for women.
As has been evident throughout the conflict in Syria, neither the government nor the rebel faction shave been held accountable for their crimes – even when these crimes do not respect international law. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon noted that government abuses were largest in scale. In its 2013 Annual Report on Syria, Amnesty International wrote that “the government took no steps to investigate the numerous allegations against their forces or to bring anyone to justice for alleged gross human rights violations, crimes against humanity or war crimes. The government maintained a reign of impunity, including legislation giving members of the security forces effective immunity for unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearances and other human rights violations.”
The Global Justice Center is all too familiar with the dangers of governmental impunity through its work with the Burma Law Project. The Burma Constitution perpetuates injustice as a policy by giving complete amnesty to the military for its crimes, including systematic rapes of ethnic women. It also excludes women, just as 2012 Syrian Constitution. With the human rights violations mounting in Syria, including an alarming number of reported rapes and sexual crimes, it is clear that no matter how the conflict in Syria ends, perpetrators must be held accountable on both sides. The international community cannot allow yet another example of war crimes, especially gender-based violence, to be carried out with impunity.
In addition, according to Women under Siege, a journalism project founded by Gloria Steinem, sexual violence is and has been rampant in Syria throughout the conflict. It is perpetrated by both sides, without justice for victims (or, in many cases, even necessary medical care). Women Under Siege has been collecting reports of sexual violence in Syria to document the way rape is being used to terrorize and intimidate the Syrian people. With this data they have created a live, crowd-sourced map. The crimes documented went largely unpunished and represent only a small part of the whole, because sexual violence in Syria is largely underreported.
“With no clear future for Syria in sight, refugees are understandably cautious about who they speak to and trust with sensitive and personal information… It may be hard to put their trust in a stranger when, time and again, there has been little justice for victims of wartime rape.” – Lauren Wolfe, Director, Women Under Siege.
According to data from the WEF Gender Gap Report on countries’ gender equality progress since the Arab Spring, overall the region’s score increased by a dismal 1.2% from 2010 to 2012. Syria, on the other hand, decreased by 5.3%. That’s right: Syria is moving backwards on women’s rights issues, mainly because of decreases in estimated earned income. In addition, in a list of 135 countries, Syria was ranked an abysmal #111 in the Gender Gap Index for “political empowerment” in 2012 by the report.
“[Syria]’s civil war has coincided with reduced political participation for women and sharply curtailed access to the country’s shattered economy,” wrote Max Fisher, Washington Post’s foreign affairs blogger, in an article.
But Syria is not only moving backwards; the basis on which it started never had equal opportunities for women in the first place.
“While the penal code no longer fully exonerates perpetrators of so-called honor crimes, it still gives judges options for reduced sentences if a crime was committed with “honorable” intent. The nationality law of 1969 prevents Syrian women married to foreign spouses the right to pass on their citizenship to their children or spouses,” Human Rights Watch stated in its 2012 World Report on Syria.
When this tragic and deadly conflict finally comes to an end, any future government in Syria must look towards building long-term stability. A major key to that is to have a government and a constitution that is representative. Women’s rights are not something that can be pushed to the side and fixed only after the country is considered “stable.”In reality, ensuring women’s rights is anecessary step to achieving long-term stability. There must be increased participation in the political process by women if the country is to fulfill the pledge in the 2012 Syrian Constitution of a multi-party system, replacing ade facto one-party system that has hindered democratic reform for the past several decades.
As the world waits to see if the US will strike and what the global fallout from such action will be, it is critical to examine the roots of injustice if Syria can ever hope to move forward.
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Recently women have been heavily involved in protests in Egypt. This was true as well in 2011, but when the 2012 Constitution came out it had as little gender equality as the laws it was replacing.
At what point in the process did it become okay to silence the voices of women?
“[President] Morsi had promised an increasing role for women and Copts. The Constitution came after that with nothing! … Women’s rights have been linked to religion and not to the needs of Egyptian women,” - Azza Suleiman, an Egyptian lawyer working to stop violence against women, said in an Amnesty International Report when interviewed.
She also condemned the opposition’s reaction: “They say it’s because there are more important issues to deal with at the moment. As if women’s problems are not as important!”
In 2012, the new government failed to deliver on its promises of democracy. Women were not equally represented (only two female members in the 36-member Cabinet). No tangible action was taken on gender issues. Authorities announced a stricter sexual harassment law in October 2012 and again in February 2013, but failedto pass it both times. Without women equally represented in the government, there was little motivation to act on gender equality issues – though women protested the unfairness from the outside. An Alliance of Women’s Groups called for gender equality in the new constitution in July, but thus far there has been little sign of movement on this issue.
The Global Justice Center knows that, where there is a constitution that excludes women and ignores the processes of justice, unrest is bound to follow. Our Burma Law Project seeks to challenge the same constitutional suppression of women’s voices in Burma. Gender parity in power is key to long-term stabilization in both of these transitioning democracies.
Amina Agami, an Egyptian woman who works with NGOs protecting human rights, said in the same Amnesty International Report that the 2012 Constitution “…does not care about women, as if they do not exist.” She also said that the Constitution could potentially provide for child marriage, and “The Constitution does not give women any chance to be at the parliament, ministry of justice or any other positions like that.”
GJC knows that to have a functioning democratic state the laws holding it together must be just. It is not possible to have such laws while women’s rights are ignored.
In the recent 2013 protests, women have been repeatedly silenced with sexual harassment while trying to exercise their right to peaceful protest. On the single day of June 30th, 46 sexual assaults were reported from Tahrir Square. The attacks on protesters have reached such levels that Amnesty International recently began a petition calling on Egypt to end sexual violence against women protesters. Consider also that 99.3% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetimes.
This wide-scale suppression of Egyptian women’s voices is unacceptable. Egypt cannot move in any positive direction if Egyptian women are unable to exercise their political voice freely and unmolested.
In the next few weeks, Egypt needs to keep in mind gender equality and equal participation in government because without it a just and democratic system will never be reached. GJC aims to increase women’s roles in governments internationally. As our logo demonstrates, women make up 51% of the world’s population, but the global average for women in government is only 19.7%. We are working to close this gap, because only then will we have true representative democracy. Women must be allowed to have an equal and respected role in government changes in Egypt. While we wait to see when and if Egypt will hold democratic elections again, one thing is clear: The party thatultimately gains power in Egypt must make women’s rights a priority.
Girls and women in Kenya recently made history when the High Court of Kenya delivered a favorable outcome to a constitutional challenge in which 160 girls between the ages of 3 and 17 sued the Kenyan government for failing to protect them from being raped.
The girls brought the action under Section 22(1) of the Kenyan constitution, which provides that “Every person has the right to institute court proceedings claiming that a right or fundamental freedom in the Bill of Rights has been denied, violated or infringed, or is threatened.” The Kenyan criminal code contains laws that protect against rape, however they are not enforced and as a result rape has been on the rise. The petitioners accused the police of “neglect, omission, refusal and/or failure…to conduct prompt, effective, proper and professional investigations” into sexual violence complaints.
The High Court agreed with the petitioners, saying that the police had “unlawfully, inexcusably and unjustifiably” failed to respond to reports of sexual abuse in Kenya. It said police inaction and lack of enforcement has created a “climate of impunity” that shows perpetrators they can commit crimes of sexual violence and not be punished. The Court found that the petitioners’ fundamental rights and freedoms had been violated, not only under the Kenyan Constitution but also according to international law. The Court found police inaction to violate fundamental rights that are protected by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Court also considered international cases that demonstrate a consensus that states may be held accountable for failing to properly respond to sexual violence because they have a duty “to protect all citizens from violence and ensure their security of person.”
Two days after the victory, several people contacted Fiona Sampson, the Toronto attorney who worked on the case. They wanted to use the case as a model in other countries for fighting impunity in the context of sexual violence, a problem that is hardly limited to Kenya.
For the women in Burma, for example, the problem of impunity in the face of widespread sexual violence is dire. The prevalence of abuse, documented by Burmese women’s groups, UN special rapporteurs, and even the Security Council, is extensive. These violations are not anecdotal incidences of crime. Rather, the Burmese military uses rape as a weapon of war against the civilian population.
Although this problem has been reported at length, the Burmese government refuses to take any action to punish such acts. In fact, the current 2008 Constitution provides complete impunity for sexual violence perpetrated by the military by including an amnesty provision that precludes the prosecution of military perpetrators of crimes. What’s more, current law requires that any amendment to the Constitution be supported by more than 75% of parliament. Because 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, all nonmilitary members plus at least one military member must support any proposed amendment. It is therefore unlikely that the amnesty provision will be overturned any time soon.Because of this, the International Center for Transitional Justice has said that Burma presents “one of the most difficult challenges in the world in relation to making progress toward combating impunity”.
As a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Burma has an affirmative duty to ensure women are protected from sexual violence, which includes not affording immunity to its perpetrators. Like Kenya, Burma is bound under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and should be guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in developing policies and practices that protect Burmese citizens from sexual violence. Burma is violating these international obligations when it relies on its 2008 Constitution to justify inaction.
The international community should look to the recent case in Kenya as a model and call for Burma to put an end to impunity if it wants to establish viable democracy in the country. Given the Burmese military’s reliance on aid, international pressure could be highly effective. While the government continues to fail to act to combat impunity, the international community must demand a change in the constitution so that girls and women in Burma, just as in Kenya, receive the protections their government owes them.