Global Justice Center Blog

UK-led Call to Action to End Violence Against Women and Girls in Emergencies

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.

Ending Impunity for Widespread and Systematic Use of Sexual Violence in Colombia’s Ongoing Armed Conflict

On November 27, as part of 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, advocacy group ABColumbia published a report on women, conflict-related sexual violence and the Colombian peace process. This report reveals the widespread and systematic use of sexual violence in Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict by security forces, guerilla groups and paramilitaries. Torture and mutilation, the killing of unborn children, rape in the presence of family members and gang-rape are used as a tactic to achieve military goals. This report sheds light on the strategic use of rape as an illegal weapon of war, a method of conducting hostilities that violate states’ responsibility as well as international law. This report also illuminates the economic and cultural systems that sustain violence against women and girls – pre-existing norms and patterns of discrimination, both inside and outside the conflict – that must be dismantled to establish an equality-based rule of law in Colombia. Massively underreported, these crimes are almost never prosecuted and the impunity rate for sexual-related crimes runs at more than 98 percent. According to the report, ending the almost total impunity for this crime is essential for the potential success of a peace process in Colombia.

A woman holds up a poster dotted with rose petals and a message that reads in Spanish; “Only a kiss would shut me up,” during a march to protest physical abuse of women and in support of Colombia’s peace talks in Bogota, Colombia on Friday, Nov. 22, 2013.

In 2012, Amnesty International said that in Colombia, “women are targets of sexual violence to sow terror within communities to force them to flee their land, wreak revenge on the enemy, control the sexual and reproductive rights of female combatants or exploit women and girls as sexual slaves.” While sexual violence against women is employed as a strategy of war by all armed actors in the Colombian conflict, different objectives are pursued using sexual violence by security forces, guerilla groups and paramilitaries.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armados Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) uses sexual violence strategically in the forced recruitment of female combatants. Though recruitment of children below the age of 15 is a war crime, young girls are either lured into the FARC or abducted, to serve “as companions for their leaders,” their forced sexual services as ‘payment’ to protect other members of their family. Furthermore, once ‘recruited,’ FARC imposes their policy of contraception and forced abortion to further control the sexual and reproductive rights of female combatants.

Oxfam wrote that “state military forces, paramilitaries and guerrilla groups have used sexual violence with the goal of terrorizing communities, using women as instruments to achieve their military objectives.” By terrorizing rural communities, most commonly inhabited by indigenous populations, these groups use women’s bodies to exercise forced displacement and advance their control of territories and resources. The use of sexual violence to induce terror is epitomized by the act being carried out in full view of the community, according to the ABColumbia report. This practice of forced displacement on indigenous communities puts them at risk of physical or cultural extinction – a campaign that looks a lot like genocide. Furthermore, with an increased presence of state military forces in regions characterized by large scale-mining, agribusiness and areas of strategic importance for drug trafficking comes an increase in the exploitation of women and girls as sexual slaves.

Sexual violence is also used to impose social control over the activities of women. This tactic is extensively used by paramilitary groups and occasionally by guerilla groups. Cultural attitudes and social codes are imposed on women and transgression from those roles result in punishment, often public and intended to shame the victim and cause social stigmatization against them. The use of sexual violence as a method of conducting hostilities identifies the ‘enemy’ as the civilian population rather than other armed combatants. Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman reported that “even if cases of sexual violence against women perpetrated by the Security Forces do not correspond to a war strategy (…), they constitute a generalized practice that takes advantage of the conditions of subordination of women, their precarious economic conditions resulting from lack of protection by the State, and the acceptance of existing ideas in the local culture, such as a woman’s body is an object that belongs to men.”

Protesters in Bogota chant “miniskirts are not an invitation.”

“(Rape) is one of the only crimes for which a community’s response is more often to stigmatize the victim rather than prosecute the perpetrator.” – UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict

According to this report, “impunity for these crimes acts to reinforce, rather than challenge, these pre-existing norms and patterns of discrimination against women, both inside and outside of the conflict.” Incidents are rarely reported because there are no guarantees for women in the justice system – either they are not believed, or the police took no action, refused to document their case or they feared for their safety. Also, the social stigma attached to sexual violence that fosters the practice of victim-blaming and encourages women to remain silent about their attacks. When Colombia’s security forces are themselves among the perpetrators of violence, it makes sense that women have an extreme lack of faith in their access to justice. Ending impunity for these crimes is essential for changing attitudes about conflict-related sexual violence.

Unlawful weapons violate states’ responsibility as well as international law. Peace talks between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were officially announced in August 2012, after five decades of conflict. The ABColombia report calls for Colombia to adhere to UN Resolutions 1325 and 1820. Colombia signed both these resolutions, which state that Governments must ensure sexual violence is on the agenda during peace talks, that there should be no amnesties for sexual violence crimes, and that women must play a major part in the peace process and in the construction of peace. Women’s issues cannot be dealt with ex-post, especially when mistreatment and abuse of women is deeply rooted in Colombian society. Women are being sacrificed for their country without their consent and their voices must be heard during the peace process.

The Audacity of Hope for Peace Amidst Devastation in Congo

In a move that raised hopes for a peace agreement to end nearly two years of insurgency in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the rebel group M23 surrendered to authorities in Uganda. M23 has been the dominant rebel group fighting to seize control of the Congo’s mineral resources in the latest installment of the multinational war that has devastated the region since 1998. M23 stated that their movement would adopt “purely political means” to achieve its goals and urged its fighters to disarm and demobilize. Yet they were forced to end their rebellion in the face of military victories from the Congolese army, and crumbling under international pressure, particularly action from the United Nations “intervention brigade” and Rwanda’s alleged decision to stop its rumored military support for the rebels.

At the heart of the world’s longest-running conflict has been a battle over Congo’s abundant mineral wealth, as warlords, corrupt government officials, competing ethnic groups and corporations fight to control them. Congo has more than 70% of the world’s coltan, used to make vital components of mobile phones, 30% of the planet’s diamond reserves and vast deposits of cobalt, copper and bauxite.While ten armed groups still operate and compete for access to mineral resources in Congo, M23 has been the most active group since April 2012 and represent the latest manifestation of this ongoing crisis. In April 2012, the rebels accused the government of failing to live up to the terms of their 2009 peace agreement, and took up arms in April 2012. This country has repeatedly witnessed decades characterized by patterns of violence, peace accords and continued violence.

Now that the rebels have abandoned their insurgency, the government will “make a public declaration of acceptance” and within five days, a formal peace agreement will be signed. The peace process in DRC is unique because due to years of nonstop war and abuse, sexualized violence has become normalized and impunity is the rule. Because the sex-subordination of women in society has been reinforced and defined by the conditions of endless war and war trauma in DRC, peacebuilding process must involve the participation of women.

Congolese soldiers interviewed by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative displayed “extremely rigid and formalized gender roles in times of both war and peace.” Wartime sexual violence is linked in general to sex-subordinating attitudes such that wartime rape becomes part of the larger system of sex subordination as well as part of war itself. For a country that has experienced decades of war with very few intervals, the violent subordination of women becomes synonymous with the daily conditions of living in a war zone. Furthermore, the trauma of war and exposure to violence – seeing family members killed, being personally injured or raped, or forced to witness rape – increase the likelihood of perpetrating gender-based violence. According to researchers, 59 percent of men and 73 percent of women in DRC reported at least one traumatic event due to the conflict. What is being enacted on women in DRC’s war and homes is the result of a lack of relief from constant exposure to violence as well as an extreme conception of masculinity that is synonymous with war.

Dr. Denis Mukwege is one of the only surgeons in Congo performing surgeries to repair the devastating vaginal and reproductive damage done to victims of war rape. He has stated that he’s performed thousands of reconstructive surgeries, including surgeries to remove fistulas, brought on by unique brutality of war rape in DRC. He discusses how these vicious acts of rape and sexual violence are used as a weapon of war by both government and rebel forces.

In addition, Dr. Mukwege states that child soldiers who return home grow into men are not being taught any other way to behave and have learned to live only through aggression. Among men who were forced to leave home during the conflict, 50 percent reported committing an act of gender-based violence against their female partner. Furthermore, 800,000 people have been displaced since M23’s insurgency alone – a traumatic experience characterized by economic disenfranchisement and associated with a loss of masculinity, which has contributed to widespread spousal abuse. Within the context of war, the language of power is asserted by subordination, in this case gender-based violence predominately against women and girls (though men have also been systematically raped in DRC).

The status of women within society is a key factor in the prevalence of violence against them. Post-conflict DRC must involve dissolving the sex-subordination of women that has defined this armed conflict. A certain kind of masculinity gets forged in the crucible of war that is sustained by its contrast to a subordinated femininity. This conflict has normalized sex-subordination of women in society and re-establishing the rule of law is key for women’s peace, security and protection of rights.

US special envoy Russell Feingold described the enduring instability in the DRC as “one of the toughest problems in the world”, but said “it has never seen such sustained (international) attention.” In a country in armed conflict where current law rules marital rape is not a prosecutable crime and impunity for gender-based violence is rampant, the international community must step forward to establish a new rule of law. Congolese men, women and children have all suffered unimaginable traumas but the disproportionate impact of conflict on women demands calling for women’s engagement in conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

Written statement to CSW 58 on “Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals”

In general, access to justice for women is essential to the advancement of women’s rights, including the prevention of any form of discrimination against women, including gender based violence, and the full implementation of the rights in the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.2 In this context, it is essential that women are able to assert their rights in a judicial system, have access to redress and reparation, including compensation, and have perpetrators of crimes against women held accountable.

This written submission focuses on two particular areas: of access to justice: the right to access of safe abortion services for girls and women raped in armed conflict, and the need to increase women participation in governance.

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