Words alone won't end violence against women in armed conflict
Lakshmi Puri, UN Women Deputy Executive Director
2 July 2013
Policies designed to tackle gender-based violence are welcome, but they must be backed by firm action if they are to bear fruit
Last year, as rebels captured the main towns in northern Mali, UN Women registered a sudden and dramatic increase in rapes, not least in Gao and Kidal, regions where most women never report such violence to anyone, not even health practitioners.
We heard stories of girls as young as 12 being taken from their homes to military camps, gang-raped for days, and then abandoned; of surgery and delivery rooms invaded by armed men enforcing dress codes and occupying health facilities; of young women being punished, flogged, and tortured for bearing children outside marriage.
Last week, the UN security council heard of similar atrocities elsewhere in the world, and adopted its fourth resolution in five years exclusively devoted to the issue of sexual violence in armed conflict. A crime that was until recently invisible, ignored, or dismissed as an inevitable consequence of war, is now routinely addressed by the world body in charge of the maintenance of international peace and security.
This is not the only policy gain achieved in the past few months. In March, the Commission on the Status of Women, the principal global policymaking body dedicated to furthering women's rights, reached a historic agreement on violence against women. The forward-looking declaration commits member states to actions – including in conflict and post-conflict situations – that have never previously been so explicitly articulated in international documents.
In April, an arms trade treaty was adopted by the UN general assembly, requiring exporting state parties to consider the risks of arms being used "to commit or facilitate serious acts of gender-based violence or violence against women". That month, Zainab Hawa Bangura, the special representative of the secretary general on sexual violence in conflict, named and shamed perpetrators in her annual report to the security council. The world's eight richest nations reached a historic agreement to work together to end sexual violence in conflict. Under the presidency of the UK, the G8 agreed on six major steps to tackle impunity and pledged more than $35m in new funding.
This sample of policy developments parallels rising demands to advance women's empowerment and gender equality, and to address violence against women. At the beginning of 2013, there were mass protests in every major city in India in the wake of a gang-rape in Delhi; similar revolts against sexual assault have occured in Brazil, South Africa and other countries. This level of popular mobilisation following incidents involving violence against women has not been seen before.
More strikingly, the trend is developing at a time when rising fundamentalism, widespread austerity and continued militarism threaten to roll back women's rights and push aside gender equality demands. Women's rights activists have to risk their lives to denounce rape in Mali. Refugees fleeing Syria are experiencing forced and early marriage in refugee communities in neighbouring countries. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, attacks are being carried out against girls who simply want an education. The facts about what the World Health Organisation recently called "a global health problem of epidemic proportions" remain basically unchanged. More than a third of all women and girls – in countries rich or poor, in peace or at war – will experience violence in their lifetimes, the overwhelming majority of them at the hands of their partner.
The latest security council resolution and other recent policy gains indicate progress. Now, inspiring words must be turned into action by investing in female empowerment and leadership as the most effective strategy to end violence against women. It is no coincidence that the majority of advances in recent international jurisprudence on war crimes against women have come from trailblazing women at the helm of international courts or leading international prosecutions. By the same token, laws and police action are not enough to help a battered woman escape an abuse situation and restart her life. Only greater equality between the sexes will turn the tide to prevent and end violence against women and girls.
These positive steps must be built upon through decisive action by national governments. They must seek to ensure that such violence does not happen in the first place – and that, when it does, there is a swift and appropriate response that includes effective access to justice. It requires strong international co-operation, among multilateral and regional entities, including UN Women, to empower women and girls and put an end to the atrocities. And it requires strong efforts by civil society organisations and the global women's movement to remind both national governments and international organisations that words are not enough, that a few actions are not enough, that we must aim high and maintain progress.
The article is online at: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2013/jul/0...