Archive | February, 2012

Syria: A reminder that women are not the only victims of sexual violence.

24 Feb

What started months ago as peaceful protests in Syria has descended into a violent conflict, which has left an estimated 6,000 dead. As I sit writing this in Washington DC, the Syrian government continues to shell civilian areas, most notably the city of Homs, which has been under near constant bombardment for nearly three weeks, leading to the deaths of likely hundreds (though numbers are nearly impossible to confirm due to a lack of media or humanitarian access), including the recent deaths of 2 western journalists. But bombs and tanks are only a portion of the atrocities taking place in the troubled state.

Yesterday a United Nations panel released a new report accusing the Syrian government of committing Crimes Against Humanity. Although this report focused predominately on where responsibility lies for these crimes, it once again gave a rundown of the atrocities committed, ranging from the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, to arbitrary arrests and torture (including sexual assault), that have been the primary focus of previous UN reports.

Rumors of the use of sexual violence by Syrian forces have been circulating since early last summer.  While there were numerous stories being told of women being detained by authorities and raped, little could be confirmed in these early months by human rights groups or the media. These stories fed into not only the worst fears of women and girls in Syria, but the men who care about them. These fears proved to be a useful tool in Syria, where reports state that during detention and interrogation Security Forces would often threaten to rape men’s female relatives.

By November, rumors gave way to fact, when the independent international inquiry commission released their first report on the “gross human rights abuses” committed in Syria. While the report acknowledge the likely use of rape against women, it claimed to have little evidence of these attacks*.  However, the report provided alarming details on the use of sexual violence and torture  against men and in many cases boys, some as young as 11, who were being held in detention. Testimonies told of the use of rape, forced oral sex and other forms of sexual torture by security forces. Victims and witnesses stated that these atrocities were often conducted publicly in front of other detainees (including family members).

As illustrated in the examples above, sexual violence has proved to be both an effective  tool for the Syrian armed forces. While attacks on men had in some cases physical effects, as did other forms of physical torture, there appears to have been a large psychological motive behind these abuses. Syrian Security Forces played off of the fear, humiliation and dishonor that these attacks (and the threats made against the women in their lives) instilled.

These testimonies from Syria serve as an unfortunate reminder that women are not the only victims of sexual violence in war zones. The idea that women can be the only targets of these abuses is an assumption that we too often make. And one which may hamper attempts to curb the use of rape and sexual violence in conflict.

~Apologies for this being a somewhat hastily written piece that’s more my collection of random thoughts on the atrocities in Syria, than any great analysis.

* The report specifically details  reasons for women’s likely under-reporting of sexual assaults, including the stigma attached to rape in Syria.


Valentine’s Day – What do women really want?

14 Feb

ImageHappy Valentine’s Day! Men are spending today scrambling to pick up chocolates, flowers, jewelry and other treats for the most important women in their lives (and to be fair… plenty of women are reciprocating the gift giving). These trinkets are greatly appreciated and enjoyed (so don’t assume that any of the suggestions below get you out of buying flowers!), but women throughout the world want and need so much more. So what do women really want?

Peace. Security. Rights. Opportunity.

There are plenty of things that you can do to make a difference in the lives of women and girls around the world today. Below are just a few options that I managed to pull off of Twitter and Facebook during my lunch hour!:


UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women (UN Trust Fund). The UN Trust Fund is a global multilateral grant-making mechanism that supports local and national efforts to end violence against women and girls. Donate online or if you are in the United States text UNITE to 27722 from your cell phone to give $10.

Women Thrive Worldwide. Women Thrive Worldwide advocates for U.S. policies that give women in the developing world the tools they need to lift their families and communities out of poverty. Donate Here. Unable to make a monetary donatation? Donate your status or twitter to help spread the word about Women Thrive, check out some sample statuses on their site.
Women for Women International. Women for Women International provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency, thereby promoting viable civil societies.Make a donation and send an E-Valentine to a special person in your life.
V-Day and ONE BILLION RISING. One in three women worldwide who are raped or beaten in their lifetimes; That’s a billion women. In honor of these women, VDAY is inviting ONE BILLION women and those who love them to WALK OUT, DANCE, RISE UP, and DEMAND an end to this violence. Pledge to join them online. While online check out VDAY’s list of performances of the Vagina Monologues to see if there is one near you!
Ask your Senator to Co-Sponsor the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2011 (S. 1925). Violence against women isn’t just a problem in far off distant lands, it’s a very real issue in the United States. The Senate is in the process of reauthorizing VAWA and 45 Senators as of today are listed as co-sponsors but the more co-sponsors the better! Contact your Senator’s office directly or use the National Organization for Women’s online tool to do so and ask them to Co-Sponsor VAWA.
Wishing everyone a very happy and loving Valentine’s Day! And just for fun…. Check out some fantastic Washington DC themed Valentines

International Security: “…something is missing. And that is women”

7 Feb

Photo Credit: US State Department

This past weekend, senior leaders in international security policy from around the world, including US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, gathered in Munich, Germany for the 48th annual Munich Security Conference.  The independent conference focuses on discussion and analysis of current and foreseen future security challenges, such as decreasing global military budgets, ongoing violence and repression related to the Arab Spring and increasing concerns over Iran’s defiant attitude. And like many of these international conferences, it attracted a variety of side events as well, including a breakfast event focused on women in international security.

In her remarks at the breakfast, Sec. Clinton focused on what appears to be missing piece in international security and peacemaking….There just aren’t enough women. To prove her point Clinton pointed out that even there, at a global conference on security, she could count very few women in the audience (another participant in the breakfast put the exact number at 37).  She also cited the fact that many of the failed peace negotiations in recent decades lacked the voice of women at table, as only 8% of participants in these discussions were women.  Clinton also pushed back on the often used criticism that focusing on women’s rights and inclusion in peace processes  is “soft” and can be brushed off to the “margins of the real conversation”. She stated that “We just completely reject that. And the evidence is so clear that rejecting it is the right decision.”

The important role that women play in peacemaking was recognized in UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which was passed more than a decade ago.  It’s an issue that the Obama administration raised to national prominence again when it announced the  U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security and an accompanying executive order last December.  The plan lays out the US’ course of action to “…accelerate, institutionalize, and better  coordinate our efforts to advance women’s inclusion in peace negotiations, peacebuilding activities, and conflict prevention…” among other things, like humanitarian assistance and civilian protection.

At the event, Clinton specifically highlighted the role the US has played in supporting the training of 2000 female peacekeepers in regions, predominately in Africa, where women and children are among the most severely effected by conflict. She also touched on the role that the US and our NATO allies have played in increasing the role women play in Afghanistan and the work being done there to train female police and military personnel. She made it clear that the  international community must continue to work for women in the region, stating that “…part of what we have to do as we try to test whether peace is possible in Afghanistan, is to make it very clear that peace will not come at the expense of women’s rights and roles”.

Afghanistan is the perfect example of the challenges that women face in having their needs recognized and their voices heard in the peace process. While comments like Clinton’s at the women’s breakfast are great to hear, they do little to quell the concerns of women on the ground in Afghanistan and other war torn areas of the world. These women have heard this rhetoric for sometime now, but what they have failed to see is action.  Women in Afghanistan for years have been calling to be brought in to peace negotiations with the Taliban, negotiations that they fear will result in the stripping away the rights they’ve gained in recent years. Despite requests from women leaders and civil society members and the emphasis that western states put on women’s rights, when it comes down to it,  NATO has done little to involve women in the process.

The United States has made a concerted effort to elevate the issues of women’s rights and participation in the global discourse on peace and security, humanitarian aid, development, politics and economics, particularly under the Obama administration.The National Action Plan is in place, and the opportunities to try it out are there, in Afghanistan, in Darfur, and numerous other conflict ridden states around the world. But the time to start turning words into actions is now. After all,  Secretary Clinton is right when she says that ” When you look around the world,… You see  how hard it is to make peace under any circumstance. But the exclusion of women, I argue, makes it even harder.”

Click hear to read the entirety of Clinton’s remarks at the women’s breakfast.

Happy 1st Anniversary UN Women!

2 Feb

Today, UN Women celebrates its first anniversary. This organization, brought together several separate, but related entities within the UN system, including the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI). Together, these organizations have been able to combine their expertise and resources to create an efficient and impactful organization. UN Women now focuses on 6 specific areas: Violence against Women; Peace and Security; Leadership and Participation; Economic Empowerment; National Planning and Budgeting; Human Rights; Millennium Development Goals.

In honor of the anniversary, UN Women Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet (who formerly was the first female President of Chile from 2006 – 2010), highlighted the organization’s achievements in its first year of operation and laid out an ambitious agenda for 2012.

Included in the organization’s many 2011 successes:

Bachelet acknowledged the difficult economic and contentious political situations facing states throughout the world, but called for a continued and stronger commitment to gender equality through women’s economic empowerment and political participation in 2012. “During this time of austerity and uncertainty, we cannot let budget cuts and political change cut progress for girls and women. Our challenge is not only to protect hard-won gains, but to advance the rights of women.”

Thank you UN Women for all your work!

To read Michelle Bachelet’s full remarks or to see the video of the press conference, visit