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Balancing Celebration and Caution in Burma

11 Apr

Photographer: Christopher Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

Newspapers have been heralding the election last week of Aung San Suu Kyi to the Burmese Parliament. Pictures of the victorious Suu Kyi speaking to thousands to cheering supporters and headlines pronouncing the “…dawn of a new era” in Burma covered the front pages. The announcement of the election of the Nobel Laureate, opposition leader and former political prisoner, who spent nearly two decades under house arrest, was no doubt an important and symbolic step towards a hopeful democratic transition in the small South East Asian nation. But while the world is congratulating one of it’s most celebrated women on her electoral victory, thousands of other Burmese women are continuing to suffer at the hands of the brutal military that still holds the majority of power in the country.

Mass atrocities have been common place in the minority states of Eastern Burma since the military regime took control of the government decades ago and decided to use scorched earth tactics to put down rebellions in outlying states like Kachin.  In addition to pillaging and razing homes and villages and forcing their populations to relocate, the military has faced accusations of unlawful killings, torture, forced labor, the use of child soldiers  and the use of indiscriminate weapons in civilian areas.

There have also been widespread reports of rape and other forms of sexual violence and slavery being used as weapons of war against ethnically Chin, Karen and Rohingya women. From March to November 2011, more than 81 rapes were reported to human rights activists along the Thai-Burma border and as refugees poured into China from the minority state of Kachin, so did the horrific tales of rape. Human Rights Watch released a report last month on various human rights abuses taking place in Kachin, which included detailed descriptions by witness of the atrocities being committed against women in this state. These reports include the gang-rape of a young woman by 4 soldiers, and the abduction of two women who were taken to a military encampment where they were  forced from tent to tent and repeatedly raped by officers. These events occurred just months before the countries landmark elections.

These continued abuses exemplify the need to balance the celebration and hope surrounding the election of Aung San Suu Kyi with caution. While these glimpses of democracy are welcome, under the countries constitution it is the military that still holds the power, with little to no accountability to the civilian government that Suu Kyi and her colleagues in the National League for Democracy were elected into. Due to this, it is yet to be seen how much real change everyday Burmese citizens and particularly those from ethnic minority groups, will see as a result of these elections.

In the excitement that has followed the elections, nations throughout the world have begun to “mull over” their options for lifting diplomatic and financial sanctions against Burma. South-East Asian heads of state who met at last weeks ASEAN Summit ( Association of Southeast Asian Nations) called for western states to immediately lift all sanctions, which would be music to the ears of many investors.

Several major European corporations have been pushing the EU to lift their sanctions quickly, as they are eager to move in ahead of American rival companies. While it is likely that the EU will ease restrictions it has not yet stated what that will entail. David Cameron, UK Prime Minister, is expected to visit Burma this week, making him the highest ranking western leader to visit the country (the US began to thaw diplomatic relations last December when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited).

The United States has also begun to ease travel bans on Burmese leaders and restrictions on financial services and investments. Clinton also announced the Obama Administrations plans to appoint an ambassador and organize a USAID program for the country. The rewards that Clinton announced were tempered with her accompanying firm calls for improvements in human rights and continued political reform.

Human rights advocates have argued that the much of the progress that has been made can be attributed to international pressure put on Burma, and warn that the lifting of sanctions too quickly takes away a major leverage point that could be used to urge further reform.

Western states need to acknowledge and reward what progress has been made in Burma, but the level of those rewards must be on par with the level of real progress and change that has been seen. All sanctions can not just be lifted when civilians are still being targeted and killed, children are being recruited as soldiers and porters and women face a continuous threat of sexual assault.


I also wanted to share 2 great opinion pieces by Burmese refugees (and activist leaders) in North America:

Still Waiting for Reform in Burma – By Yee Htun, Coordinator for the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict.

Burma – What Elections Mean to the Ethnic People – By Myra Dahgaypaw, Board Member of Karen American Communities Foundation and is a 2010 Carl Wilkens Fellow with Genocide Intervention Network (now United to End Genocide).


Crowdmapping: The latest tool in documenting sexual violence

30 Mar

Technology and social media have played a crucial role in the Arab Spring uprisings. Various social media networks have proven to be useful tools in not only organizing the uprisings, but getting  information about events on the ground back out to the world-at-large . This has been particularly important in places like Syria, where access for independent media, as well as, humanitarian investigators is nearly non-existent. Information is a necessity for  policy makers, aid groups and the public, if we are to respond  effectively and promptly to crises. In an effort to harness the power of  social media  in delivering information, Women Under Siege, in partnership with a Harvard-based doctor, an epidemiologist from Columbia University and Syrian activists, recently launched a new initiative utilizing crowdmapping technology to document sexual violence in Syria.

Women Under Siege is encouraging, survivors, witnesses, and medical or humanitarian personnel working with Syrian refugees to submit reports of sexual violence, including the nature and degree of the assaults, locations and any information available about the perpetrators to the organization via email, twitter or the website This technology allows sexually-based violence to be reported in real-time, as opposed to months or even years later, as is often the case.  An email released by the Women’s Media Center, which Women Under Siege is a project of, states that “By plotting each story on a map, the project shines a light on the full scale of the war going on in Syria—which includes sexualized violence—and gathers valuable data that can help us detect the vital signs of the Syrian conflict zone and point aid workers toward existing needs for survivor services.” There is also hope that this information may even be able to be used to help with prosecutions, which are crucial for bringing an end to the culture of impunity that often protects perpetrators of sexual violence in conflicts.

Their efforts in Syria have even received the stamp of approval from Margot Wallström, UN special representative of the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict. “More and better information about conflict-related sexual violence is crucial. Talking about this issue is a first step, because only then can we help break what has been called history’s greatest silence. And using modern information technology to this end is very welcome.”

The project is not without risks. Often survivors and witnesses have concerns about possible retribution for reporting  cases of sexual assault or other forms of violence in conflicts to anyone, let alone through a very public and traceable forum like the internet. It’s a fear that’s not unfounded. Eman al-Obeidi, was held in detention in Libya by Ghaddafi security forces last year after she reported being gang raped to a crowd of international reporters at a hotel in Tripoli and a Sudanese women, Safiya Eshaq, fled from her home in Khartoum to South Sudan after she spoke out about her alleged attack by Sudanese security forces. Women Under Siege, in an effort to mitigate security concerns, allows for reports to be submitted anonymously and provides suggestions for increasing individuals digital security.

Many of the reports mapped so far have been from media sources, but the group told the New York Times that they have other reports from individuals which are currently being “assessed”. Due to the lack of formal independent media or human rights investigations on the ground in Syria few of the attacks reported can be official verified.

We can’t respond to or prevent issues that we don’t understand, don’t acknowledge, or don’t know about. Women Under Siege’s initiative seek to address these each of these problems. If successful, the project may prove invaluable in data collection and raising the public consciousness of these issues. Also, the success of this initiative (and others like it**) will continue to promote the creative use of social networking technology to monitor conflicts, violence, humanitarian needs etc.

** Crowdmapping is also being used by other groups to monitor general levels of violence and human rights violations in Syria. It was also previously used to track election violence in Kenya.

International Women’s Day: Focus on Women in Conflict Areas

8 Mar

This blog was originally written for United to End Genocide in honor of International Women’s Day

Today serves as a day to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions that women around the world have made to their societies. However, it is also a day to reflect on the challenges that women continue to confront.  Perhaps nowhere are these challenges more prominent than in conflict zones, where women are faced with having to protect themselves and their families as they strive for peace in their communities. Violence against women is a tragic theme that touches every conflict our organization works on.

Violence Against Women in United to End Genocide Conflict Areas

In Darfur, women face brutal attacks when Janjaweed militias or government troops storm their villages. These women continue to remain vulnerable in refugee and internally displaced person camps, particularly when collecting firewood or water. These women have reported having to make unbelievable choices – send their husbands or sons out to collect the wood where they would be killed, or make the journey themselves and be raped.

For months, rumors have been circulating about the use of sexual violence in Syria. While many of the confirmed victims have been boys and men, UN officials believe women are largely underreporting rapes. Syrian security forces have also found that the threat of raping the female relatives of detainees can be used as a form of coercion.

Since last March, more than 80 cases of rape have been reported by human rights groups on the Thai – Burma border. Meanwhile, a recent flair-up of violence in the minority state of Kachin has sent refugees fleeing across the Chinese border with horrific tales of violent rapes by Burmese soldiers.

Sexual violence is an epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which the UN Special Representative Margot Wallström on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence has called “the rape capital of the world”.

International Community’s Response to Violence Against Women

For centuries, this type of violence against women was seen as an unfortunate side effect, or even a spoil of war. However, today mass rape is increasingly recognized as a strategic tactic and weapon of war and the orchestrators of these atrocities can now face charges of crimes against humanity. Since that time, the international community has made attempts to curb sexual and gender-based violence, hold perpetrators accountable, and mitigate the other effects of conflict on women.

These efforts have been welcome progress, but much more still needs to be done to address the needs of women in conflict. While UN resolutions 1325 and 1820 laid out specific requirements for states to consider gender perspectives when addressing conflicts, conflict-related humanitarian crises, and peace processes, neither resolution has been fully implemented.

Today, too many women are still being targeted by government forces and rebels around the world, who know that attacking them will help break down the societies they are trying desperately to control. Survivors of violence and sexual assault often lack access to proper medical and psychosocial services. Displaced women rarely have safe or secure access to even basic necessities such as food and water. Too often the voices of women are still absent from crucial negotiations that could bring their communities peace.

Everyday women’s rights and human rights advocates — both those affected by conflict and elsewhere around the world — work tirelessly to keep these issues on the global agenda, so that future generations will never know these atrocities. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it’s important to remember the mothers, sisters and daughters living in areas of conflict and to ensure that their voices are not silenced.

Somalia’s Women: Just a Spoil of War?

29 Jan

Credit: Sven Torfinn for The New York Times

If you’ve followed international news at all over the past 6-8  months you’ve probably seen some articles on the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia, interspersed between pieces on the Arab Spring and US war efforts. A colleague recently sent me a piece on the situation in Somalia, which had been featured in the New York Times, with a headline that really caught my attention.

The headline of Jeffery Gettleman, Dec. 27th article declared “For Somali Women, Pain of Being a Spoil of War”.  Gettleman’s piece focused on the horrors of sexual violence facing Somali women and the challenges that relief organizations face in getting aid to the victims, a topic that I pleased to see making the national it into the national media. However, the bold headline left me with one question; Is the motive behind the spike in sexual violence in Somalia truly just the archaic notion of women being the “spoils of war”?

Gettleman focuses much of  his piece on the on the involvement Al-Shabaab, an extremist Islamic militant group controlling southern Somalia, which has been the perpetrator of many of the sexual assaults both inside and outside of the camps. He tells the story of a young woman who brutally raped by a group of Al-Shabaab fighters in a camp, just a few months after she watched the same men kill her friend for refusing to marry an Al-Shabaab commander. This Gettleman says has become common. Al–Shabaab goes into an area and forces young women into “temporary marriages”, which more closely resemble “sexual slavery”. With limited funds to pay their fighters, the militants often resort to stealing crops and livestock and providing women to their fighters is “a cheap way to bolster their rank’s flagging morale’. This description seems to epitomize the notorious concepts of  ”the spoils of war” and “rape and pilage”. But it seems to me that there is another motive behind Al-Shabaab’s attacks on Somali women.

Al-Shabaab’s use of terror, intimidation and control in areas they’re present in in Somalia is well documented. They control access to (and tax) much of the food and water supplies in the area, diverting food aid relief to benefit themselves and their supporters. They often limit the movement of populations, preventing those endangered by fighting or famine and drought from moving to safer areas. They’ve engaged in the forcible recruitment of both children and adults into their ranks and extrajudicial killings are common and often public. It seems likely that Al-Shabaab’s use of sexual violence, like many of their behaviors, is a tactic of control through fear, in addition to being opportunistic and advantageous to their efforts. The piece in the New York Times mentions in passing that Al-Shabaab “…is seizing women and girls as spoils of war, gang-raping and abusing them as part of its reign of terror in southern Somalia” and includes a quote from United Nations’ Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict stating that “for the Shabab, forced marriage is another aspect they are using to control the population.”. But little more is said about this article of the situation (In my opinion, a bit more analysis on this piece of the issue would have made a very good article, that much better).

In order for there to be effective long term solutions to problems like what we are seeing in Somalia, not only the international community, but the general public need to see the full picture. The international community has taken great steps towards recognizing that mass violence against women in conflicts, perpetrated by militias or even governments, is often as much tactile and strategic, as it is opportunistic. But still too much of the pulbic writes off sexual violence in wars as an unfortunate side-effect of conflict and in a world of RSS feeds, tweets, and media websites  featuring 100s of headlines, a headline like Gettleman’s may just reinforce this archaic belief.