International Law: Supporting or Ignoring Survivors of Gender-Based Violence?

Image: Victims of sexual violence in eastern Congo, 2007. James Akena/Reuters

“Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times.” – Susan Brownmiller, 1975[1]

In conflicts ranging from the 18th century Scottish Highland Clearances to the Rape of Nanking in the 1930s, sexual violence has been a lurid, ceaseless feature. The rationale is that sexual violence is an unfortunate, but inevitable, consequence of the breakdown of the rule of law and the militarised, masculine culture of conflict zones. Until recently, victims of the violence are seen as ‘spoils of war’ – rewards for the conquering army – and the phrase ‘boys will be boys’ was used to justify heinous, violent acts of sexual assault during conquest[2]. Thankfully this began to change with the development of the ‘weapon of war’ narrative, which emerged in the 1990s. This was based on a recognition that rape is not an unfortunate byproduct of war – it is a strategic and systematic act used to undermine the enemy by demoralising and humiliating, instilling terror and devastating communities. The very deliberate nature of this widespread sexual violence was revealed and could no longer be sidelined by international legal institutions.

This development in the interpretation of wartime sexual violence had positive implications for increasing accountability and prosecution of perpetrators. On the 26th April 1995, in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the case of Duško Tadić marked the first international criminal trial to include charges of sexual violence. This was based on evidence that systematic sexual violence had been employed for the purposes of ethnic cleansing – defined by the UN as “rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group”[3]. It was recognised that in the context of the former Yugoslavia sexual violence had been used in order to present the Bosnian nation as inferior and humiliated, ordered by superiors as a strategy of war. A second landmark case for the prosecution of sexual violence took place in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in September 1998. Jean Paul Akayesu’s guilty verdict for employing rape as a tool of genocide, defined by the UN as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”[4], marked the first time sexual violence had been considered to be a crime of genocide. This judgement was based on a recognition that acts such as forced sterilisation, abortion and forced pregnancy could be strategically used to affect the ethnic composition of a group. The weapon of war narrative, which recognises the deliberate and systematic nature of wartime sexual violence, has therefore been vital in drawing attention to the extent of this violence, and has been celebrated as a key achievement in feminist literature on the subject.

“This rhetoric serves to enforce gendered stereotypes and excludes the vast majority of the women”

The prosecution of wartime sexual violence in international law is something to be celebrated, the weapon of war narrative is not. This rhetoric serves to enforce gendered stereotypes and excludes the vast majority of the women it claims to serve. I make this statement based on two claims: the weapon of war narrative has institutionalised a notion that women are only worth protecting when the violence is aimed against men; and it fails to acknowledge and challenge the role of misogynistic societal norms which justify and provide the logic for wartime sexual violence. There were a mere 34 convictions of sexual violence across all of the UN special courts, including the ICTY and the ICTR, despite the fact that the UN estimates that between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped in Rwanda alone in the time frame of 3 months. International law failed the victims of sexual violence in these conflicts by stating that their case was only worth pursuing if they could prove the intention of their rapist – that they were acting with the purpose of ethnic cleansing or genocide. Clearly the outcome is the same for the victim whatever the intent of the attacker. It established strict victim narratives that dictated the ethnicity of the victim, the time frame of the assault, and the level of violence which was deemed sufficient. Further it was regarded as a weapon against only the men in society, attempting to make them seem weak and humiliated for being unable to protect ‘their’ women, resulting in the breakdown of communities. The societal norms which sustain this potential for breakdown are also rendered invisible by the weapon of war narrative – the belief that women are the property of the men in their community and that women are somehow ‘tainted’ if they are victims of rape. Sexual violence can only be weaponised because of these norms, existing on a continuum with peacetime sexual violence, but this is obscured by the notion that sexual violence is merely a strategy of conflict. This is succinctly summarised by Inger Skjelsbaek, who states that “women are raped not because they are enemies, but because they are the objects of fundamental hatred that characterises the cultural unconscious and is actualised in times of crisis.”[5]

Binaifer Nowrojee writes that “of the prosecutions of rape at the ICTR, there were more acquittals than convictions. So there has been a miswriting of history where those responsible for the genocide are absolved of rape.” What accounts for this rewriting? One explanation is that the international community failed to acknowledge the inherently patriarchal nature of the societies themselves. Gendered practices such as giving men exclusive control of family assets, recognising only male heads of households and requiring grooms to pay for brides denigrate and objectify women during peacetime, and have the potential to be translated into the weaponisation of women during conflict. Rape is an effective weapon because of these gendered norms – women are seen as property and therefore by assaulting them military groups undermine the community as a whole. These patriarchal norms also served to silence victims – Maxine Marcus, an investigating attorney at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, found that for many women their trauma was not recognised by the communities because rape was not considered to be a grievous crime. International legal responses failed to dislodge these patriarchal norms, as they reinforced the notion that this was purely a problem during wartime and so failed to expose the magnitude of the violence and ensure that victims voices were heard. In order for international law to prove its genuine commitment to combating sexual violence, there must be a recognition that women’s rights do not warrant protection because their violation threatens national security, but because they are human rights in themselves.

It is not yet time to celebrate the mere acknowledgement of wartime sexual violence in international law. Greater emphasis on breaking down institutional socio-economic gender inequality in peacetime society is vital and support must be provided for victims of such violence regardless of the broader circumstances. To do so, we can support initiatives such as GAPS, which provides consultations on how governments and organisations can fulfil their gender equality commitments. We must increase accountability for governments, and support groups such as End Violence Against Women Coalition, which lobbies the UK government to improve policy around violence against women. International law has the potential to be a powerful force for punishing perpetrators of wartime sexual violence, but it must work in tandem with other initiatives. Regardless of whether the abuser is held to account in a court of law, victims still suffer long-term physical and psychological consequences such as PTSD, depression and the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

Hosting a Chai Day is a way that you can take part in efforts to raise funds to support projects working to end violence against women and ensure that survivors are provided with the services and support they may require.

This article was written by Iona Cable. Iona is currently doing an MSc in Human Rights at the LSE, with a specific interest in gender and international law. She has experience in human rights organisations and undertook a project this summer researching how NGOs in the field work to tackle gender-based violence and post-conflict reconstruction. She also works for a London-based charity which seeks to improve social mobility by teaching key employability skills in schools.

 

[1] Brownmiller, Susan “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape”, Bantam Books (1975), p15

[2] Crawford, Kelly “From Spoils to Weapons: Framing Wartime Sexual Violence” in Gender and Development Vol 31 No 3 (2013), p511

[3] United Nations, Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to SCR 780 S/25274 (1992), p16

[4] United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article II (1951)

[5] Skjelsbaek, Inger “The Elephant in the Room: An Overview of How Sexual Violence Came to be Seen as a Weapon of War” Report to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2010), p2


Sioned Jones for Inspiring Girls

“I feel really proud of what I’ve achieved and I think that is really good for your self-esteem”

This International Day of the Girl why not do something practical to help young girls around the world? Be part of the Inspiring Girls video hub and share some of your knowledge and experience in a short film. It’s very easy – here’s our CEO, Sioned Jones’ submission!

To find out how to submit your own video follow this link to Inspiring Girls video hub and get recording!

Make sure to tag us in your submissions!

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #DayoftheGirl


Cry Power Podcast

Listen below to catch Annie on the first episode of Hozier’s new podcast series Cry Power in partnership with our friends at Global Citizen. You can listen here!

The Cry Power podcast is hosted by Hozier in partnership with Global Citizen, talking to inspirational artists and activists about how to change the world. In its inaugural episode, Hozier talks with Annie Lennox about why feminism must be inclusive of men; how her personal story of activism is rooted in her family; and how music can make change happen. But it’s not all talk — you can join the Global Citizen movement and take action below to end gender inequality all over the world. Subscribe on AppleSpotify, or Acast now.

“I’m absolutely delighted to be part of ‘#CryPower’ – the brand new ‘Hozier – Global Citizen’ podcast in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Goal Number 5 (Gender Equality) represents the urgent need for transformation and empowerment in every aspect of the lives of millions of women and girls everywhere around the world. From education to protection against gender based abuse and violence. There is a desperate need for #GlobalFeminism everywhere!”

– Annie Lennox

In Global Citizen’s piece on the podcast, James Hitchings-Hales writes “The last time Annie Lennox met Hozier, they were rehearsing a duet together in a Los Angeles hotel room — without yet realising that their shared vision for the world around them stretched further than music.

Years later, the two are in a recording studio across central London, relaxing into a dark leather sofa. They’re talking about how art has often defined activism throughout history — in conversation for the first episode of the Cry Power podcast in partnership with Global Citizen.

“Music defines change,” Lennox says, later pointing to Childish Gambino’s This Is America as a music video that truly woke people up, a moment Hozier agrees is an “arresting piece of work.” He suggests that music can tell the truest stories about human experience: “It’s a real vehicle for the zeitgeist.”

Lennox and Hozier, now close friends, talk for over an hour. The topic: global feminism, pertaining to the fifth of the UN’s Global Goals — achieving gender equality to empower all women and girls. They touch on everything from education and HIV/AIDS, to #MeToo and gender violence. ”

Read the rest of the article here!

#GlobalFeminism


South Africa’s Gender-Based Violence State of Emergency

Uyinene Mrwetyana

I’d like to share a bit about my week as The Circle’s Relationship Manager, as dual South African / British citizen and as an empowered woman lucky enough to be born into a reality seemingly more equal than others. I spend most of my professional time and energy connecting inspiring women to each other and finding ways that they can support some of the most vulnerable women and girls globally. The voices we amplify through The Circle tell stories of injustices that are so far removed from my own life experiences that I desperately want them to not be real. But they are.

The women whose stories we share are more than just statistics, they are women like you and me. I could be her; she could be you. As a member of The Circle, I have found many avenues to transform the shock of these stories and my own denial, grief and anger into activism. This is not enough, but is something, and when connected with the energy and action of the other members and seeing women empowered because we are choosing to do something instead of nothing, that feels like claiming back the power to bring about the change we so desperately need. Outside of work I am incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by kind, supportive people, who have set high expectations for how we should be as human beings. Professionally and personally people in my life give me space to express my passion for equality, to rant, to cry, to rage and this support is essential to my mental health and wellbeing.

The first week in September 2019 has been a dark one. Media in South Africa has and continues to report stories of victims who were brutally murdered, exposing the epidemic of gender-based violence across the land. Blood of South Africa’s women spilled by men who knew them intimately or not at all. This week the echoing silence of those in power was heard loudly over the lamentations of the people. We have watched as that silence was broken with language blaming the victims for the crimes committed against them. The public lashed back as women and men shared the governments official statement with corrections made in red font, like a learned response from a teacher to a pupil whose work missed the point of the exercise entirely, the only thing missing was a red letter F circled in the top corner.

To many, South Africa represents the most progressive country on the continent. Colonisation instilled the western ideologies and systematic structures as a foundation familiar to tourists from the West. So why shine a light on country with more financial stability that its neighbours? Let’s begin with August 2018. South Africa’s Women’s Day is held on the 8 August and is meant to be a month of celebration of the mothers and daughters of the country in remembrance of the women uprising against the Apartheid Pass Laws in 1956. Instead, thousands of my South Africa sisters halted the empty celebratory tokenisms to unite their voices in protest against the gender-based violence, which currently holds more than half the population hostage to fear and threat of violence, assault and femicide. The #TotalShutdown movement saw uprisings across the country with the clear message #MyBodyNotYourCrimeScene. Fast forward to 1 April 2019, South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa declared that gender-based violence in South Africa as a ‘national crisis’. A declaration was signed with a promise to eradicate the femicide that is taking the lives of South Africa’s women on a daily basis. 2016 data from the World Health Organisation reports that the femicide rate in South Africa was 12.1 per 100,000, almost 5 times higher than the global average of 2.6 per 100,000. In his address to the Nation, Ramaphosa stated that ‘’According to the SAPS Crime Statistics report of 2018, femicide increased by 11% over the last two years,” he told the assembled crowd. “Stats SA reports that 138 per 100,000 women were raped last year, the highest rate in the world.”

Our story continues on 3 September, the date on which the body of a young women, Uyinene Mrwetyana, was found dumped in Khayelitsha, South Africa. Uyinene, a daughter, sister a friend was violently assaulted and raped before being bludgeoned to death with scales at a post office in Cape Town. The horror of crime against a woman who was simply trying to collect a parcel from the Clareinch post office has sparked a national outcry from the people of South Africa . Uyinene’s body was found a mere 15-minute drive from The Circle’s partner project, Nonceba Family Counselling Centre, a refuge for women who are victims of sexual violence and assault. Personally, this fact has hit a nerve for me. I share stories about the women empowered by the life changing work this shelter on a daily basis and our members inspire me with their ideas on how to raise funds essential to continuing this work. Even more importantly, I have heard women tell me personally about how Nonceba has literally saved their lives. Their voices are my beacon of hope this week, knowing that they are reclaiming their lives back from the violence a mere 15 minutes down the road from where Uyinene’s body was found.

I have spilled many tears this week. I have had very difficult, but important conversations with the men in my life, I have listened to the rage of women, and I have grieved for the lives of women taken by men and gender-based violence, especially in South Africa. I took some time yesterday afternoon to cry for the lives lost and those left behind, irrevocably changed forever. I had a cup of tea, put my Relationship Manager hat on and joined a conference call. I listened as members in the USA shared their thoughts with me on how they want to do more to help victims of sex trafficking by supporting our partner project ACT Alberta. Another member reached out to tell me about a series of music events she has lined up to support our projects, one of which will be a Chai Day to raise funds to support victims of gender-based violence. My inbox is full of inspiring ideas and hope from people who are unequivocally demanding change. The women I work with have, without even knowing it, pulled me from my own personal despair this week and I am forever grateful for the connections I have as a member of The Circle.

These glimmers of hope reminded me that in moments of tragedy doing something positive is always better than doing nothing.

So I took action.

I made a donation to Nonceba in the hope that I can help safe another life.

I shared stories of victims with people, in person and online, to help raise awareness and break the taboos.

I signed this petition calling for South Africa’s  parliament to declare gender-based violence as a state of emergency. According to the Change.org petition, the number of women murdered by men in South Africa is approximately 3000 per year, while approximately 50,000 women will experience sexual assault or physical violence per year. By comparison, Sierra Leone declared a state of emergency in February 2019 when the more than 8500 cases of rape were reported in 2018.

I registered to host a Chai Day for The Circle to raise essential funds needed to empower victims of gender-based violence to reclaim their lives and to be part of the movement to raise awareness and end the violence.

I wrote this blog post to share the pain and stories of our global sisters.

Finally, I am asking you to join me in doing something small too, so that our small actions can collectively be part of something powerful and life changing for a woman or girl facing injustices that no human being should have to face.

The Nonceba Family Counselling Centre: Siyanda and her son

#WomenEmpoweringWomen#GlobalFeminism


On the Road to Iran

 

Susan Ferner is a member of The Calgary Circle who has channeled her experience of coming close to traffickers and her subsequent heightened awareness of the issue into a beautiful creative writing piece. Since becoming a member, she has formed The Calgary Circle and focused their attention on addressing the huge issue of sex trafficking within her own country. This piece and the efforts of their circle on the other side of the pond are testament to Susan’s determination to use her own experience to empower other women.

On a warm September evening in 2017, I walked along a single lane highway that led to the border of Iran and took photos of the Zangezur Mountains and Voghi River valley. I had embarked on an off-the-beaten-track trip in Armenia just two weeks prior. Armenia is a tiny Christian country in the Caucasus that boasts home to the oldest churches in the world, with mysterious monasteries dating back to 200 AD. After spending days exploring ancient churches and fortresses, I set out with two friends to discover the more isolated Syunik Region. My friends were at the hotel when I ventured down the road for a short walk, armed only with my camera.

Transport trucks and buses lumbered by sporadically as they wound their way up the mountain pass, confined by a wall of rock on one side and a steep slope on the other. The borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed, but goods pass freely between Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Iran. One hot commodity is women. We had long ago left behind the red neon lights and silhouettes of naked women that adorn the strip clubs in the outskirts of the country’s capital, Yerevan.

The heat of the day had broken and my shadow formed a long black silhouette ahead of me. Engulfed in a dusty haze, the mountains rose up around me. Dead grass swayed back and forth in the breeze along the steep slopes. I heard a car whizz by, followed by the sound of the

engine as it ground into second gear. I turned to watch a white Lada pull a U-turn before a hairpin curve, a blind spot in the road. The car drove slowly back towards me. Dark tinted windows lowered and four men stared hard-eyed at me. They appeared to be in their early twenties. The car came to a dead stop thirty feet down the road. The front passenger, with black hair, fair skin and dark eyes, got out of the car and walked slowly towards me. He tugged on his cock, unexposed, and called, “Russa?”

“Nyet Canada.” I yelled. I backed away quickly and faced the man.

“Russa!”

“NO! Canada.”

“Russa!” he insisted.

“CANADA. AMERICA.”

My heart raced. My mind was clear. These men thought that I was Russian. A prostitute. Fair game. Then the driver got out of the car and walked slowly towards me. “Russa! We police. You come here!”

I knew the police in Armenia did not look anything like him. I also knew that sometimes pimps pretend to be the police to frighten women to come closer. “Fuck off! Fuck you!” I screamed.

My heart pounded. I ran across the road, seized a large rock on the side of the highway and hurled it in the direction of the driver. It fell purposely short of my target. I picked up another and winged it closer to his feet. I grabbed a third and sprinted back across the highway.

I faced the two men and felt the heavy weight of the rock in my hand, ready to launch it. Surprised, the driver stopped. Angry, the passenger cursed me. “Bitch!”

“Fuck off! Go away. STAY AWAY,” I yelled.

Silence. The men looked me up and down. Was that the sound of a motor in the distance? I was not sure, but maybe that is why they got back into their car. As they drove away, an uncontrollable wave of anger slammed into me. Furious, I raised my camera and zoomed in. I took two photos. One of the driver’s profile with a sneer on his face and his third finger raised high in the air. And one of the license plate. Brakes slammed. Doors flung open. The passenger in the front seat jumped out and came straight at me.

My mind was focused on one thing, and that was getting away alive. I distinctly remember thinking that I am not ending my life in Armenia. I rested my hand on the highway guardrail and leapt over it. I hunched down low and – half running, half skiing – slid down the steep slope. I did not look up until I moved into deeper brush and thorny bushes, fiercely seeking a place to hide. I scanned the top of the slope and guard rail. No one. I scoured the brush. The men were nowhere to be seen.

I had one hour to get off the mountain before dark.

Calm down. Breathe. Think! Which way to go? The steep climb back up was not an option, the white Lada might be waiting for me further along the highway. I had no choice but to angle further down towards the town. My steps were firm and deliberate. I did not want to trip and fall into the empty space – the void – that lay between the top of the bushes and the ground below. My pace slowed as I struggled through the brambles and stinging nettles. I thrashed along as red welts and deep gashes appeared on my hands and legs and ankles. At last, I saw signs of civilization. The rails of an abandoned railroad gleamed red in the failing sunlight. I followed the tracks which led me to an isolated cemetery. The graves were marked by the somber portraits of men and women, their faces etched into the granite and star at me. They reminded me of the eyes of those four men in the white Lada. Dispassionate and cold.

This was not the place for me.

I continued through the cemetery and followed a rough dirt road that led to the outskirts of town. I heard shouts of laughter from children who played in the streets. Three young girls and a boy chased a dog and threw small rocks at it. I slowed down and passed by row upon row of heavy grey Soviet-style apartments. Apart from a few Toyota trucks, all I saw were white Ladas, but no sign of the four men. I am not sure if I would have recognized them. The entire episode on the side of the road felt like an eternity, but I believe it all happened in less than four minutes.

Seated on the plaid sofa in our hotel room, my friends turned pale as I recounted my story. My arms and legs were dirty, scratched and bloody. Peter looked grim, and gave me a long hug and said, “Those bastards.” Sonia could not believe that I jumped the guardrail. “I would freeze,” she said.

Years ago, I said, I read a story in the Globe about a woman who was forced into a car, repeatedly raped and then murdered. The RCMP say that if you think someone is going to attack you, swear and scream and throw things. An attacker is looking for someone who freezes. He does not want a fight. He wants an easy target. And anyone who wants to drag you

into a car is going to do terrible things, so it’s best to fight and run. Even if he has a gun. Run! It’s hard to shoot a moving target. I never forgot that article.

Although friends at home questioned why I walked alone on the road to Iran, neither Sonia or Peter wondered why. We had been told that Armenia is safe for tourists, a new frontier for backpackers and travelers. Until that moment on the road, I had experienced only gracious and generous hospitality from the local people. It was not too late in the day nor was it too dark. I may be a seasoned traveler, but perhaps I was naïve in this case? Or perhaps it was just bad luck.

We went to the local station and a serious policeman looked over the photographs and noted the license plate. Twenty hours later, the same policeman informed me that he had visited the “boys” that evening and it was all a cultural mistake. He said that the boys thought that I was Russian. They were young and drunk and stupid. The policeman reminded me that Armenia is a safe country and things like this never happen here. Then he said, “This can happen anywhere in the world, can’t it?”

“Yes,” I said. “It can.”

“Did you really throw rocks at them?”

“Yes, I did.”

“What do you want to do now?” he asked.

“Do now?”

Surprised, I stopped to think. In Canada, I would not press charges because there is no case. The men approached me, I swore and yelled at them, the situation escalated, but they did not touch me. I kept my distance, threw rocks, jumped the guard rail and scrambled down the mountain. In my mind, there was no legal battle and even if according to an Armenian law there was a case, it was my word against theirs.

“Nothing,” I said. “I don’t want to do anything. I’m leaving Armenia in a few days and I won’t be coming back for a court case.”

It was only later that I learned from an Armenian friend that prostitutes walk the roads and highways. The prostitutes are Russians. Girls and women who are baited with the promise of work and opportunities and lured away from Russia. They are transported thousands of miles away from home. Enroute and in the new country, they are repeatedly raped, beaten and threatened by pimps who lock them into rooms and brothels and put them on the streets and highways.

When I arrived back in Canada, one thing struck me. Viscerally. I have the freedom to yell and swear and run. I can hurl rocks and I can howl. But the girls and teens and women who are trafficked out of Russia do not have that freedom. They cannot run, and if they flee, where will they go? A Russian woman on the side of the highway has no choice but to climb into that car with four drunk men because a pimp is holding a gun to her head.

A few weeks after I got home, a friend at work told me a story. His wife’s friend, Claire was shopping at Market Mall with her 15-year-old daughter, Emily. They were eating at the food court and Emily went to the washroom. Claire waited and waited. Emily was taking a long

time, so Claire went to check on her. She found the teen slumped semi-unconscious between two women.

“What’s the matter”?

“Oh nothing,” one of the women replied. “Our friend is sick and we are taking her outside.”

“Your friend? Sick?? That’s my daughter!”

The women dropped Emily and ran. Claire later learned from the police that abductions happen in Calgary and across Canada. She also learned that a teenage girl has a street value of $260,000 a year to a pimp and an organized crime ring.

Late in October of that year, I saw a young Indigenous girl on the downtown streets of Calgary on a cold rainy night. She was on the corner of an intersection with an older man. The traffic light glowed neon red on the wet pavement. The man walked between a few cars and panhandled until the light turned green. The girl waited on the sidewalk. Feeling utterly useless, I drove off. Then I pulled over about a block away and stopped. I paused. Then I called 911. After I explained the situation, the woman on the emergency line asked me if I thought the girl was in imminent danger? Was she being prostituted?

“I don’t know,” I said. “All I know is that it is late at night and the girl is so young, only about thirteen. She seems excited to be there, wide eyed and innocent. She’s not tough and beaten up. She’s alone with a man who is in his forties. It’s a rough corner. So yes, I think that she is in imminent danger.”

The 911 operator promised to send a car over. As I drove away, I thought about how the girl should be at home, sleeping, and going to school the next day. She would be in Grade 7. I have no idea if that phone call made any difference. All I know is that the policeman in Armenia was right, sex slavery is happening everywhere in the world, hundreds of thousands of miles away. And right here in Canada. Just a few kilometers down the road from home.

If you are feeling inspired by Susan then click here to find out more about becoming a member!

This short story was written by Susan Ferner. Susan presently works in the areas of stakeholder engagement and social impact assessments for industrial developments in Canada and around the world, which have a human rights component. Susan started her career in the late 1980’s with a focus on women’s equality and poverty alleviation. When Susan joined The Circle in 2017, she felt that she was coming back ‘full circle’ to where she started – devoting time and energy to join like-minded women to address the brutal reality of the human rights violations that women suffer, including gender discrimination, domestic violence, rape, sex trafficking and poverty. In her spare time, Susan is happiest hiking to the top of a mountain, snorkeling in the sea and dancing to classic rock.

 

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #WidenYourCircle


Interview with Hoda Ali

“Whatever you do, please don’t turn away and pretend we don’t exist. And don’t, for one second, think it couldn’t have been you.”

We interviewed human rights activist Hoda Ali about what it means to be a refugee working in the UK.

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

My name is Hoda Ali and I am a nurse and human rights activist. My focus is defending the rights of girls through campaigning to end female genital mutilation (FGM) in the United Kingdom. FGM is one of the most extreme forms of violence against girls and women. It involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia and has devastating lifelong consequences for survivors. FGM is usually carried out on girls before they reach puberty. It is child abuse.

I currently lead a 3-year project working as a Community Outreach Project Manager for Safeguarding in Perivale Primary School, one of the first schools to set up an outreach programme on FGM. Education is critical in preventing FGM and through our outreach programme we educate in the school and run workshops for parents and the wider community. The feedback is overwhelmingly positive, and we are working together to ensure the safety of all the girls in our schools.

My passion for human rights comes from my own experience as a survivor of FGM and being a child refugee. In 1988 my family had to flee from its home when the first civil war broke out in Somaliland and 1991 after the second civil war started in Mogadishu, we had to leave Somalia. Eventually, I came to the UK and I have now lived here for 21 years.

After qualifying as a nurse, I worked in the sexual health clinic at Ealing hospital and after taking part in the Channel 4 documentary The Cruel Cut in 2012 I started campaigning against FGM. In 2013 I co-founded the Vavengers, an FGM awareness-raising group and we ran the first anti-FGM billboard campaign in the UK.

In March 2018 I was nominated as an Amnesty International Human Rights Defender and I was honoured to be included on the Suffragette Spirit Map.

This month we are focusing on women in conflict; from displaced peoples to the women working in conflict zones as journalists and medics. How can we be more aware of their experiences?

It can be easy to rush through life, focusing on our personal priorities and not taking time to think about life from another person’s perspective. In a country like the UK it can be hard to imagine suddenly losing everything, but it is the reality for millions of people whose lives are torn apart by war, famine or other disasters. Women and children are especially vulnerable in all conflicts and suffer terribly. Try and think about if that was you, imagine leaving everything you know behind, your country, your home, your friends, your school and everything familiar. These things are gone forever, and you no longer feel safe. What would you do? Who would you turn to for help?

We should all try to be more aware of what is happening in the world and pay attention to the stories of those living in or escaping from war zones. Follow the work of journalists who go to the refugee camps and allow the voices of the injured and homeless to be heard. When you hear the heart-breaking personal stories and not just the political posturing of warring leaders you start to understand what war really means.

If you are lucky to live in safety and prosperity, treasure it and use your advantaged position to support those who need your empathy and help.

Can you tell us a little bit about the challenges that refugees face whilst living in the UK?

Leaving everything behind in one life and beginning another in a new country with different laws, different education and health systems, different languages and different cultural expectations is frightening and requires a period of adjustment.

For people who seek refugee status the process is one of the most difficult things they go through due to the circumstances under which they leave their home country. It is administratively complicated and can feel dehumanising and many refugees are deeply traumatised, so this difficult process is even more challenging.

One of the worst things is feeling isolated. Refugees may be separated from family and friends and everything around them is unfamiliar. Communication may be difficult or even impossible due to language barriers and this makes integrating into a new community very hard. Food, clothes and all the daily things we take for granted seem strange and can get overwhelming when you are suddenly in a new country.

There is also a lot of ignorance and racism towards refugees. It is exhausting and soul destroying to have to constantly justify yourself. Settled refugees contribute greatly to their new homes but this is rarely acknowledged.

Being a refugee is especially hard for children. You lose everything including your sense of safety and may be separated from your parents which has a huge psychological impact. Many refugee children also have interrupted education and need support to catch up. However, given security and support most go on to shine!

If you could share one thing with our supporters, what would it be?

Some days, just hearing the news makes it hard to breathe. Like everyone else, I want to shut my ears whenever the word refugee is mentioned. Switch stations on the radio; turn off the TV and pretend it isn’t happening. But unlike most people, I can’t. You see, I know what war is. The words ‘bombs’ and ‘massacre’ are not something I’ve only ever heard in the news. I am a refugee and I always will be.

While EU Governments debate whether to give shelter and to how many, my hope lies in people. Everyone can help. There are things we can change in the long-term, and we have the resources to respond immediately to help those in crisis now. Write to your MEP/MP and tell them the UK has a responsibility to offer sanctuary. If we stay silent it is assumed that we don’t want to help refugees so do not let them think that you don’t care. Write to the papers and the BBC whenever you hear the word ‘migrant’ being used to describe those fleeing war. Tell them the word is ‘refugee.’ Tell them words matter when people’s lives are at stake.

Whatever you do, please don’t turn away and pretend we don’t exist. And don’t, for one second, think it couldn’t have been you.

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #GlobalFeminism


Annie Lennox for The Times

Rarely does a moment occur when, as an activist, I sense that seismic change might be in the air. This week will be one of those moments. I’m writing to say that we must seize it.

“I have spent years campaigning on social justice issues concerning the rights of women and girls. I feel driven by the conviction that it is essential to try, with the hope that with collective effort, things can be improved — while motivated by a combination of outrage and empathy .

But rarely does a moment occur when, as an activist, I sense that seismic change might be in the air. This week will be one of those moments. I’m writing to say that we must seize it.”

Annie Lennox calls on governments to take action against sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. You can read the full article here: Annies Lennox Times article 20 June

#GlobalFeminism #WomenEmpoweringWomen


Who Made Your Clothes?

 

Over the last few years the words ‘sustainability’ and ‘ethical’ in relation to the fashion industry, have been taking the headlines by storm. On 24th April 2013, it was reported that a factory had collapsed in Bangladesh, leading to the deaths of more than 1,000 workers. Bangladesh is one of the largest garment producers in the world. When we shop on the high street there are no signposts signalling that slavery may be prevalent within their supply chains. We see these amazing garments and are excited to try them on and shop the latest trends but, we do not see the faces of the women who make these garments.

As a person who is highly interested in the craftmanship of clothes and the reinvention of trends, I am conflicted by how I can invest in this industry without contributing to the continuing unethical practices of the fashion industry. We need to make changes in how we make, source, and produce the clothes. Government bodies and retailers need to be made accountable: Eco-age is doing just that.

In an interview for the sustainability consultancy Eco-age, our very own Livia Firth who co-founded The Circle, describes the first time she visited a factory in Bangladesh. In 2013 Firth travelled with Oxfam and says it “changed my entire life”. They were “smuggled” into a factory where there were “armed guards at the doors so no one could come in and out”, “armed bars at the windows, no fire escape […] the floor was full of women who had to produce 100 pieces an hour and these women had no rights” such as no sick leave and only two toilet breaks a day. Even if their child was sick, not working would result in a loss of their jobs. As Livia Firth goes on to say, we are so far-removed from this horrific situation that it is hard to believe that the clothes we wear everyday are linked to this inhumane treatment.

Bangladesh is “such a vibrant, beautiful country, and the women deserve so much more” – Livia Firth

 

I love what Livia Firth also says in this EcoAgeTV video which you can watch on YouTube (see link above). The responsibility lies in all of us, not just the retailers and government bodies who have an immense responsibility to make changes.

The day after the crack was discovered in the factory, the garment workers did not want to go inside but they were threatened. The factory was under pressure to fulfil the orders. Nazma Aktar, Founder and Executive Director of the Awaj Foundation says, “the previous night, everybody knew the factory was not safe. The politicians and the manufacturers forced the workers to enter. It is murder.”

The garment industry is a complicated web of problems that are hard to solve. Aktar goes on to say that out of 4 million workers in the garment industry, 80% are women coming from very poor families who live in the countryside and entering into the urban economy. These jobs are very important for them. If their salaries go up, the factory will close down.

“The multi-nationals always said, if you price more we will leave this country, we will leave this business from Bangladesh.” – Nazma Aktay

 

 

On 11th May 2017 The Circle launched The Living Wage report in partnership with TrustLaw and the Clean Clothes Campaign at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. It is the first report to demand the Living Wage for garment workers.

The report sets out the legal argument that a living wage is a fundamental human right, and that companies and governments have a responsibility to uphold this right.

The report starts by clearly stating how efforts to prevent labour exploitation have been non-binding. They have been ‘voluntary codes and initiatives designed, implemented and monitored by the retail companies that control the supply chain, and normally developed in response to negative publicity generated by investigations carried out by NGOs or the media.’ This behaviour is corrupt. It is utterly inhumane that retailers are not upholding their responsibility to protect their workers. This is where the work that The Circle are doing is fundamental to making progress in the debate about the living wage. The Circle are combining activism and research within a legal framework. This report could really shake up the debate.

Ultimately though, as Firth reminds us, we all have a responsibility to change the face of fashion. We live in a throw-away society and when we discard a garment after only a couple of wears, we are not taking a moment to remember who made it. When we buy and buy and buy, we are giving these companies the means to produce more, faster; “we are completely complicit in the system”. But when we do not buy into this industry, we are taking away work from these women.

We “cannot boycott or stop buying because they need to work”

 So, we need to be actively seeking ways to go to the source of the problem, expose the corruption and improve the lives of these women who deserve so much more.

Firth tells Harper’s Bazaar Netherland of some useful tips for how we can shop differently and not treat these women like slave labour. We need to show them that “we really respect their work and we value the things that they make. So, when they sweat on their production line, producing 150 pieces an hour, make them know that we value them, that we are not going to wear them once or twice and then throw them away”

I would highly recommend reading the report (it’s a long one so grab a cup a tea and a couple of biscuits) and get ready to be thoroughly inspired.

Be part of the change. This is just the beginning.

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #GlobalFeminism

This article was written by Georgia Bridgett who is an intern for The Circle. Georgia is a recent English graduate and is passionate about women’s rights and the underlying issues in the fast-fashion industry.

 


The ‘Forgotten’ Victims of the UK’s Domestic Abuse Bill

Photo credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner

Across the globe, at least one in every three women has been beaten, physically or emotionally abused, or coerced into performing sexual acts. To ensure the safety and security of women is universally protected, we must continue to fight to elevate the rights of all – including migrant women. We have only truly achieved equality when all of us are free.

According to the crime survey for England and Wales, in the year ending March 2018, an estimated 1.3 million women experienced some form of domestic violence. Considering the sensitive nature of this issue, and the fact that a large majority of cases remain unreported, it is likely that this statistic is even higher. The UK Government’s release of the draft Domestic Abuse bill on the 21st January 2019 sparked hopes for increased support for victims by including an extended definition of domestic abuse to incorporate forms of non-physical abuse and economic abuse, preventing abusers being able to cross-examine their victims in court, and implementing a new Domestic Abuse Commissioner. However, the reality is that migrant and refugee women, one of the most vulnerable groups of victims, still fall short in terms of protection from the government’s amendments to the law.

In the draft bill, little aid is outlined for refugee, migrant and BAME victims, who already seem to receive inadequate treatment in terms of support and escape. The Step-Up Migrant Women (SUMW) alliance warn that, although the government recognises the ‘specific vulnerability’ of migrant victims, their current proposals will fail to provide them with the support and refuge they urgently require.

Many migrant women reside in the UK on a Spouse Visa which appears to offer minimal support or escape to those struggling with domestic abuse. The ‘two-year rule’ provides a probationary period for all marriages to non-British spouses, meaning if the marriage breaks down before this period is over, the partner is returned to their country of origin. For the first five years, victims are unable to access support services such as public funds and will not be eligible to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain. It is feared that a large proportion of migrant women have applied for a Spouse Visa Extension and have chosen to stay in their abusive relationships in order to impede the possibility of deportation and strengthen their immigration claims further down the line.

However, migrants can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain through divorce, also called a Spouse Visa Curtailment, which will not compromise the victims right to reside legally in the UK. In addition to this, if the victim can supply sufficient evidence to attest that they are impoverished and a victim of abuse, they can be granted access to financial support from the government for up to three months; this is known as the Destitute Domestic Violence Concession (DDV).

Despite this, it is reported that as many as a quarter of applications for the concession are rejected annually and, according to the Newstatesman, these figures are increasing year on year. The rigorous application process is a serious impediment to applicants as those who fail to provide the appropriate paperwork or attend a meeting on time, can face immediate rejection. Women who find themselves the victim of domestic abuse may be prevented from retrieving their personal documents or leaving their residence, leaving them dependent on their abuser and further perpetuating their cycle of abuse. Many women on a UK Spouse Visa also fear disclosing their situation as they may be threatened with the risk of deportation by their abuser. Equally, this is an unimaginable prospect for many asylum-seeking victims who have fled destruction and conflict to seek refuge in the UK. Additionally, statistics indicate that incidents involving the police handing vulnerable women over to immigration enforcement rather than assisting them are common; one report from 2015-2017 stipulates that as many as 27 out of 45 survivors were reported. These issues collectively construct an unsettling concept for victims, which may leave them feeling trapped and powerless to seek support from authorities due to a combination of abuse and manipulation, and an absence of faith in the authorities themselves.

With Brexit fast approaching, it is feared that the UK’s departure from the EU may generate increased hardship for migrant and refugee women. For example, victims who find their personal documents withheld by their abuser and are unable to supply these by 2022 to secure their EU Settled Status, could encounter stringent immigration rules and regulations further down the line. In addition, a report from the Equality and Diversity forum reports that the government has made no concrete commitments to substitute the billions of pounds of funding currently offered by the EU to support some of the most vulnerable groups in the UK, including those suffering from domestic violence.

The Rights Equality and Citizenship Programme has a current budget of £343 million designated for the whole of the European Union, with over a third of this funding being offered to the UK. The Government’s lack of assistance to non-British women who fall victim to domestic abuse has put increased pressure on services such as support groups, many of which receive funding from the programme. According to the charity Women’s Aid, the number of support groups decreased by as much as a fifth between May 2017 and 2018. This decline in support is already disconcerting for victims but the prospect of a rising decline post-Brexit appears increasingly unnerving. Further still, local authority spending for refuges has been slashed from £31.2m in 2010 to £23.9m in 2017, painting an even bleaker picture for these vulnerable groups who already face additional hardship when seeking shelter and aid from domestic abuse.

Despite the Government’s draft bill offering some benevolent and rejuvenated approaches to addressing the issue of domestic abuse, increased protections and support are desperately needed for these victims if we are to ensure that they are treated equally, compassionately, and humanely in the face of such adverse treatment. The fact that victims of abuse feel they must remain in a situation that potentially jeopardizes their life, to retain their legal residency in the UK, highlights something dangerously wrong with our system that if not rectified soon, could continue to enable abuse and present increased hardship for survivors.

This article has been written by Bethany Morris, a content writer for the UK’s leading Immigration Advice Service. | @IASimmigration

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #GlobalFeminism