A conference to end sexual violence against women

This summer I reported on the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit held in London and organised by British politician William Hague and film star Angelina Jolie. The conference made headlines, particularly when Brad Pitt dropped in, but what was the substance of the summit and what exactly will it change?

The piece below was published by the New Statesman and a series of follow up articles will be published by Lacuna later this year.




So it begins again. Soldiers are systematically raping women, men, and children, this time in Syria. Piecing together testimonies gathered over the last three years, NGOs and journalists have identified case after case of sexual violence used to terrorise civilians.

The world is one in unanimous horror on this issue, but only in recent decades have governments and multilateral agencies classified rape as a crime against humanity.

Special tribunals for the prosecution of war crimes committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia also investigate crimes of sexual violence, as does the International Criminal Court created under the Rome Statute in 1998. In 2000 the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325, which called for a greater role for women in conflict resolution and peace negotiations.

And yet, as with prosecuting rape and sexual violence during peacetime, progress has been slow. Instead, there is a culture of impunity as around the world again and again soldiers “wage war on women’s bodies”.

Recently William Hague has taken up the cause and, working with the film star Angelina Jolie, begun an international campaign for justice and reparations for survivors. These efforts culminated in the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit, which, thanks to the celebrity factor, attracted acres of news coverage and popular support.

What does this mean for the women, men and children being raped in Syria, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in South Sudan today? Can a renewed campaign address the needs of rape survivors in Bosnia waiting for prosecutions 20 years on? Is this the push needed to finally end sexual violence in conflict?


What about Iraq?

As the summit drew to a close last Friday thoughts had already turned to events unravelling in Iraq.

Hundreds of campaigners, activists and government ministers had flocked to London for the four-day event organised by William Hague and Angelina Jolie.

The summit launched a new protocol for documenting and investigating sexual violence against men, women and children in conflict. The protocol is a first draft designed to end impunity for perpetrators and military leaders.

But even as delegates streamed from the darkened auditorium in London’s Excel centre, the buzz from the soaring rhetoric of Nobel prizewinners and revered former statesman still in the air, thoughts had turned to Iraq.

William Hague, John Kerry and Angelina Jolie addressed a press conference organised to answer questions about practical next steps. But most of the questions were about the possibility of a US-led military action in Iraq, not the practicality of policing and implementing the protocol.

A conference to address the devastating impact of war in some countries, hijacked by impending war in others. This was summed up neatly by Jolie’s response to a question about her inspiration. She spoke of an Iraqi refugee and rape survivor she met in Syria, who then went back to Iraq after the war broke out in Syria. As Jolie’s expression changed from composed to bewildered, her last words hung in the air: “I don’t know where she is now.”

An impossible task

The rude intrusion of current affairs exposed the limitations of the summit. While the protocol focuses on investigating crimes, the summit itself was heavily marketed as a push to end sexual violence in conflict completely, an impossible task without addressing wider global problems.

Julienne Lusenge, a Congolese women’s rights activist who works with and for rape survivors in Eastern Congo, was greeted with whoops and cheers when she raised these issues. The material in your phones, she told delegates, is a source of support for the armed groups who rape and pillage villages. “We would like to see work against the underlying causes of sexual violence, one of these is war and the other is backward customs keeping women in positions of inferiority.”

At another event, panel members were flummoxed when a Syrian gynecologist stood up and asked: “Is there a plan in this summit for dealing with the sexual violence in my country, Syria?”

The simplicity of the summit’s premise was called into question again when around 20 protestors turned up to condemn Britain’s treatment of female asylum seekers. Some had fled conflicts themselves and then experienced further sexual abuse in the UK at the hands of detention centre guards. They were ushered from the summit’s entrance as they shouted: “Close down Yarl’s Wood, we want protection, not detention”.

It was the delegates themselves who repeatedly raised these questions. They questioned the absence of a public statement from the Nigerian foreign minister (who attended and gave a speech at the summit) about the kidnapped girls in Boko Haram, for example. And the lack of discussion about Britain’s deportation of Sri Lankan victims of torture.

Referring to the official summit hash tag #TimeToAct, the American Nobel laureate Jody Williams said: “Time to act? We have been acting for decades.” Williams won the Nobel peace prize in 1997 for her campaign against the use of land mines and cluster munitions. Speaking at a fringe event she added: “Our role is to push governments to make them do what they should do anyway.

“It is not enough to talk about sexual violence in conflict. Sexual crimes against women, girls, and sometimes men, are a continual violence happening in every country, every single day.”

#TimeToAct ?

Throughout the summit there was a sense that governments had only just woken up to this particular war crime. #TimeToAct, a useful tool for engaging the public who might not otherwise access the summit’s content, littered the speeches of ministers from 113 countries, who universally condemned the perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict and pledged support for the protocol. “As was said of slavery in the 18th century,” said William Hague in his opening speech, “now we know the facts, we cannot turn aside.”

The situation on the ground demands more than condemnation and speeches. One aim of the summit, for example, was to challenge impunity and deter future sexual violence. But this could prove difficult when the stigma of rape lingers on the ground.

Speaking at a fringe event, Nerma Jelacic a former journalist from Foča, where the Serbian army set up rape camps, told the story of a Bosnian woman who first testified in 1996 about the murder of her two brothers and husband during the war. In the decades since she has been an active campaigner for justice and has assisted the criminal courts in compiling evidence. “It wasn’t until a year and half ago that she told me she was raped in front of her two children [then aged 2 and 5]”, said Jelacic. “It took her 20 years to speak out.”

Even when rape survivors in Bosnia and Herzegovina do speak out, support varies from state to state. One law dictates that survivors must provide two witnesses to qualify for reparations set aside specifically for civil victims of the war. This is mostly impossible, according to Denis Dzidic, an editor and trainer at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). It is one reason why at least 50,000 women were raped during the three-year war and so far just 60 cases have been prosecuted.

Since 2005 BIRN has documented the destitution of many Bosnian rape survivors. “The punishment of the perpetrators is only one part of their struggle,” says Jelacic. The lack of aftercare – economic support to help women rebuild their lives and medical care to tend physical and psychology wounds – was a recurrent theme across the summit, raised not just by Bosnian delegates, but by delegates working in the DRC, in Kenya, in Liberia, in Uganda.

Ruth Ochieng has spent more than 20 years campaigning for women’s rights in Uganda and her current work in South Sudan and Liberia is spent trying to secure economic, legal and medical support to survivors of sexual violence. “Women’s bodies are battered during conflict and afterwards they have no access to services, despite the fact that they mutilated. They are walking corpses.”

But, she added: “People underestimate the power of the women’s network. We are the least funded, the least recognised and last to be asked around the table to discuss solutions. The solution is in the women’s movement. Give money to the women’s movement.

“Grace Nekaski. Raped by 19 people, she got HIV and was disowned by her husband. However, Grace today has mobilised 450 other HIV survivors from her community. They run their own farms, grow oranges and keep cows. The women in that community have taken her as their leader. There are so many Graces.”


What happens next?

The protocol itself is a comprehensive document built on the expertise and testimonies of campaigners, NGOs, rape survivors themselves. The emphasis is on supporting investigations with the standards and definitions of theRome Statute of the International Criminal Court as a starting point.

In it is current form the protocol is a blueprint for those documenting and investigating sexual violence in conflict. It provides a framework that includes guidelines for different groups on how to work together to bring about a prosecution and templates for interviewing survivors to avoid causing further trauma.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will spend the next sixth months developing an implementation plan and carrying out more field testing. An FCO source said the UK would oversee the protocol’s development before eventually handing it over to a multilateral institution.

The beautiful line

Several times during the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit delegates were told that “this is a moment”. A turning point in history where somethingwas going to change. Yet women and rape survivors working on the ground remain cautious. This is not their first moment and nor will it be the last. Instead they have a specific set of wants, and only when politicians and governments act on these will they believe that the summit does indeed reflect a significant change attitudes to all victims of sexual violence.

They say their work will continue, but it is complex and needs financial backing for grassroots organisations and adequate reparations for the women and men they work with. Before perpetrators can be prosecuted there must be structures in place so the police can properly gather evidence and sensitively question rape victims. Amnesty for rapists should not be part of peace negotiations.

Women must also have a seat at the table during conflict resolution negotiations. There has to be an end to institutional sexism, which complicates the process of justice and treatment for rape survivors across the world, not just in post-conflict countries. Mary Robinson, special envoy for the Great Lakes Region, spoke at the summit about her battle to include women’s voices in the peace process, when the 13 heads of states she works with are all men, as are their technical advisors. These frustrations were echoed at a grassroots level. Sofepadi, a local charity working in Eastern DRC, has begun training women to stand in local elections, so they can “speak for themselves”.

Civil society and women’s rights activists are doing the work, but there are problems beyond their control. “We believe that without peace there is no end to sexual violence,” Nyota Babunga, a young Congolese campaigner. “We came to speak about peace, because we believe without peace there is no development. We need development for women. We can stand for women’s rights, we can fight for women’s rights, but if there is still conflict, then the men, the things that they are doing, the killing, the violation, will continue.”

Underlying all of the grassroots activity, which spanned the globe, was a deep commitment to women’s rights and feminist solidarity. Women from these countries are too often mute in mainstream Western consciousness, victims of terrible circumstances or entrenched patriarchy. Yet for a few days their voices were heard. During one presentation, Nobel laureate and peace campaigner Leymah Gbowee, a charismatic presence with a deep, booming voice, said:

“In the middle of all of those stories there is something that I realised was happening: rape, depressed, lost hope. Then the women came, then my sister came. Then a sisters’ association came. I gained strength, I had hope and now I can make it again.

“That was the beautiful line in all of the stories. While the world called Congo the capital of rape, I call Congo the capital of sisterhood and solidarity.”



Stuff I’ve been writing…

Some links to articles I’ve written elsewhere … one is an analysis of the idea that women will be hit hardest by the British government’s economic policies. Among others, I interviewed Sue Himmelweit, a brilliant economist from the Women’s Budget Group, the Fawcett Society, some trade unionists and a young feminist from Bristol.

The arguments put forward by the Women’s Budget Group are logical and evidence-based, I’d definitely recommend their reports on the last two Budgets and Comprehensive Spending Review. If you are heavily reliant on flexible public sector employment and services, as many women (particularly the poorest) are, life will be much tougher if state spending is dramatically cut. However, you’ll have to speak Danish to decipher the article as I wrote it for Kvinfo, a Copenhagen-based women’s centre for research on gender and equality. If I get time, I might try to rehash it here, meanwhile for the Danish speakers: Storbritannien sparer – også på ligestillingen

Elsewhere, I wrote for the New Internationalist magazine on the plight of foreigners in Greece. According to sources in Greece, with the deepening of the financial crisis, fascist groups are growing stronger in Athens. Many of the refugees I interviewed there are terrified of violent racially motivated attacks. Here’s the article. Xenophobic attacks on the rise in crisis-hit Greece

Thanks for reading.

Greek protestor
A Greek man stands his ground with a mask and goggles in case of tear gas

Picture By Maro Kouri

Quiet revolutionaries: women’s rights and Islam

A few miles outside the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur, tucked away in a quiet suburb, sits a grand detached house cloaked in shrubs and plants. The house is out of place on the quiet residential street, its prettiness framed by grim iron gates and CCTV cameras. But the ramped up security is a necessary precaution against regular death threats for the Muslim activists using the house as an office.

Behind their iron-gated office, Sisters in Islam (SiS) work to promote equal rights for women based on Islam’s fundamental principles of equality, justice and freedom. While in Europe we obsess over what Muslim women wear, in some Muslim majority countries, these women are quietly building on a long tradition of feminist thinking within Islam.

SiS’s biggest battle is against the discrimination of Muslim women in Malaysia (where 60% of the population are Muslim) under the country’s dual legal system. While non-Muslim women are legally protected against discrimination as set out in the federal constitution, Muslim women are subject to Syariah law.

Though their work often attracts anti-SiS fatwas, death threats in Friday sermons and police reports accusing them of crimes against Islam, Norani Othman, one of the founding members of SiS, remains unfazed. “We got hate mail in the eighties and nineties…saying we would be punished in the next world,” she says. “At least for the moment they are threatening us with punishment in the next life, not this one.”

A lively, tireless woman, Norani has spent her life as a sociologist and academic steeped in the study of Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and is defiantly confident that there is such a thing as women’s rights within the framework of Islam. She scornfully refers to these “stupid men” who know very little about Islam, yet use it to stymie women’s progress.

“One the early things I wrote that shocked,” she says, “was that the Prophet Muhammad could be regarded as one of the early feminists. He promoted the rights of women to inherit and to participate in the contract of marriage.”

SiS began in 1987 as a weekly informal gathering of professional Malaysian women, airing their grievances about the growing injustices meted out to women in the name of Islam. They were especially angry about the patriarchal attitudes prevalent in Malaysia’s Syariah courts. Sisters in Islam was officially launched soon after with two controversial pamphlets entitled ‘Are men & women equal before Allah?’ and ‘Does Islam allow men to beat their wives?’

At this time, Malaysia had begun to veer from its liberal approach to Islam – the country’s Islamic family law was once considered one of the most progressive in the world – and to follow the path of other Muslim-majority countries towards conservatism. Soon the government of Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad began to pander to conservative agenda; changes to family law particularly affected women’s rights. One of SiS’s early victories was the campaign against the exclusion of Muslim women from the protection of the Domestic Violence Act (itself hard fought for).

But nearly 20 years later, Malaysian Muslim women still do not enjoy the same rights as men or their non-Muslim sisters. If a Muslim woman wants to get a divorce, she must seek approval from the Islamic courts, whereas her husband has the right to simply say ‘I divorce you’ and that’s that. “It is quite burdensome for the wife,” says Rozana Isa, a young SiS activist. “In cases of domestic violence the onus is on the woman to prove that she has been beaten up and show that a police report has been filed.” It took one woman seven years to get the courts to approve her divorce.

The problem is the disproportionate power given to religious authorities, argues Norani. And the reason for such practices in a country considered “moderate” is poor religious education; Children are forced to chant the verse of the Qur’an rather than engage in critical thinking, she says. “Many modern Muslims are ignorant of their religion. They have never been taught about the history and life story of the Prophet. They don’t have the basic cultural literacy of their own religion … [but] they accuse us of being western minded and anti-Islamic.”

Sisters in Islam are not alone. Across the world, Muslim women are increasingly taking up arms – or in this case the Qur’an – to revolutionise Islamic thought to turn the tide against conservative attitudes towards women. In each country, and even within countries, the experiences of Muslim women vary enormously, but academics have noted a trend of women becoming politicised through Islam, but in a way alien to the violent rhetoric of extremists that has gripped world attention since 9/11.

Musawah (meaning equality), a global network of activists from 47 countries, has been set up to promote “equality and justice in the Muslim family”. These activists exchange ideas and strategies to combat outdated attitudes. It makes our work a lot less lonely, says SiS activist Rozana.

Professor Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian American expert on women and Islam, described at a recent lecture, how she began to change her mind about the potentially regressive consequences of political Islam when researching her latest book. Spurred on by the fear that the spread of the Hijab in the west was a sign of the growing influence of a fundamentalism hostile to American values of democracy, equality and tolerance, she was surprised when her theory unravelled when interviewing young American Muslims.

“The ways in which both Islamist and American ideals, including American ideals of gender justice, seamlessly interweave in the lives of many of these younger generation is present in both sexes, but with regard to gender it is significantly more pronounced among women.

“For this had been the truly remarkable decade as regards women’s activism. Perhaps the post 9-11 atmosphere in the west, which led to intense scrutiny and criticism of Islam, including with regard to women, spurred Muslim Americans into this corrective activism.”

She adds: “This then was the final irony. It was they Muslims of Islamist heritage and not us, the seculars and the non-Islamist Muslims, who were now in the forefront of the struggle for equal rights including in relation to Islam and gender.”

Isobel Coleman, a fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank, charts this struggle in her recent book ‘Paradise Beneath her feet – How Women are Transforming the Middle East’. The book documents Muslim women fighting for equality in the most conservative Muslim societies: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Like Sisters in Islam, they regard equality and justice for women as a central tenant of Islam.

But change is often slow to come. SiS has been forced to devote much of its time fighting court cases against politicians and other groups. They recently won an appeal against a government decision to ban their 2005 book ‘Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism.’  And an Islamic youth group has started legal action contesting their use of the word ‘Islam’ in their name. Norani Othman admits that there is still a lot of work to do. “I am sorry if I sound like an angry young woman even though I’m in my fifties,” she sighs. “I’m fed up and impatient. I have had to grapple with this for 25 years.”

This article first appeared on hackeryblog