Tag Archives: Refugee Camps

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.