Tag Archives: United Nations

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.

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.

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 www.UNWomen.org.