Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, is defined by the World Health Organisation as “behaviour by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours.” The continued absence of any domestic violence legislation in dozens of countries, including the African nations of Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Middle Eastern nations such as Iraq and Syria, can be attributed to a variety of social, cultural and religious factors that differ from country to country. The absence of vital legislation places devastating limits on the support offered to victims of domestic violence in these countries – victims do not have the option to report the crime to the police, to receive support or protection from the police, or to seek punishment for the perpetrator. Importantly, legislation also serves to send a symbolic message to a society that violence is not tolerated. The citizens of these countries suffer in the absence of condemnation of domestic violence from their government, and do not get the chance to benefit from the deterrent effect that laws provide.
Unsurprisingly, human rights organisations and international legal bodies have a lot to say on the global domestic violence epidemic and the critical nature of domestic violence legislation. The landmark United Nations treaty signed in 1979, The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), states that violence against women is a violation of the right to not be “subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. The right this refers to is Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, commonly regarded as a global benchmark for human rights standards. The CEDAW document explicitly outlaws violence against women, a group who form a significant proportion of the victims of domestic violence, and has been ratified by 189 states globally.
Violence against women and domestic violence more generally have also been the subject of several UN Resolutions over recent decades – another notable step in the right direction being the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which asserts not only that state actors should refrain from committing violent acts against women, but also that states should take active measures to prevent and punish acts of violence against women in both the public and private sphere.
Yet despite the importance of domestic violence legislation as endorsed by organisations such as the UN, the continued prevalence of domestic violence globally – including within many countries that have laws in place addressing the practice – makes it clear that our current laws simply aren’t enough.
A common issue affecting many states is that while some domestic violence laws are in place in that country, the legal scope of those laws are lacking, and/or law enforcement officers and other relevant bodies don’t fulfil their obligations to prevent and punish domestic violence as set out in their country’s legislation. One country for whom these issues are a reality is Tajikistan, the Central Asian nation that introduced laws regarding domestic violence for the first time in 2013. While this milestone led to positive progress in the area of violence prevention, such as awareness-raising campaigns and the hiring of more specially-trained police staff, reports from Tajikistan indicate that this progress is not nearly enough – domestic violence is vastly underreported in the country, but UN figures still estimate that at least 1 in 5 women and girls were victims of domestic abuse as of 2016. A recent report from Human Rights Watch, a leading international human rights charity, identifies the failure of the Tajik police officials to consistently fulfil their obligations to domestic violence victims, for example by refusing to properly investigate claims of domestic violence, as one factor behind this epidemic. The report also highlights the ineffectiveness of the Tajik law itself, pointing out that the 2013 law doesn’t go as far as to actually criminalise domestic violence but merely makes provisions regarding it. Having ratified CEDAW in 1993, Tajikistan is legally obligated to protect women and girls from domestic violence and to punish perpetrators of such violence – but the Tajik government is continually failing to meet these obligations.
Laws around the world in their current state often let victims down, and in any case legalisation alone isn’t sufficient to protect victims of domestic violence if it is not properly enforced or accompanied by progressions in societal views. Despite this, legislation is still a necessary first step to improving the outlook for domestic violence victims globally. Change in societal attitudes towards domestic violence often occurs before changes in law, but it is only legislation that can formally enshrine the support, protection and punishments associated with domestic violence, which in turn provide a deterrent to potential perpetrators. The causal effect can also flow in the opposite direction, with changes in legislation often accelerating developments in societal attitudes by sending a strong message from the state that certain behaviours are morally unacceptable. Whichever comes first, societal change or legal change, it’s clear from the data that laws make a difference – the average rate of domestic violence in countries with domestic violence laws is 10.8%, compared to 16.7% in countries without such laws. To make significant progress in tackling domestic violence as a global community, a key step is working to reform legal systems wherever possible rather than operating in spite of them.
While the progress still needed to ensure appropriate criminalisation of domestic violence around the world can be daunting, we cannot forget the array of positive legal developments that have occurred in recent years. In the last decade, 47 economies have introduced new laws on domestic violence, bringing the total number of countries with some form of domestic violence laws to over 140. Scotland saw the introduction of a transformative new law this summer, criminalising psychological, financial and sexual abuse with a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment. In August this year, Italy also welcomed a new law designed to fast-track the investigation of domestic violence reports, which saw a significant increase in the number of reported cases in the first month alone. These new laws, amongst many others, have been to the benefit of survivors and potential victims of domestic violence across the globe. They show us that the goal of providing adequate protection against domestic violence is a constant and ongoing process, and they provide inspiration for other countries looking for ways to refine and improve the robustness of their domestic violence legislation.
We are entering a new decade, with the target of achieving the UN Global Goals by 2030 within our sights. This importantly includes Goal 5, aimed at achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. As a global community in pursuit of this Goal, we can only hope that the legal standpoint of governments around the world continues to improve in the coming decade, and adequate justice and protection can be given to domestic violence victims globally.
This article was written by Holly. Holly is 23 years old from Hastings, England. Since graduating with a degree in Politics & Economics in 2018 she has worked and volunteered in Africa and Asia, and is currently living in China. Her interests include human rights, international security and development.
Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of press concerning the experience of victim-survivors reporting instances of sexual assault in the UK as organisations attempt to shine a light on the monumental and often fruitless task of taking to trial crimes of rape and sexual assault. There is little chance of the perpetrator being brought to justice, and time and time again women have described how traumatic navigating this system can be. Of course, there are many who have found closure through this process and have had positive experiences with the police and legal professionals. Last week Cosmopolitan published the article What really happens when you report a rape detailing the experiences of 15 people across the UK, including the testimony of one woman who stated that “I think reporting this crime and going through the justice system has really aided my recovery and I am so pleased that I did it” after her perpetrator received a nine year sentence. However, for many women this is not the case.
Repeatedly, victim-survivors have described instances of inadequate communication from officials, concerns for their personal safety and perceptions of the system being weighed in favour of the accused all as challenges in their own justice journeys. The majority of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported to the authorities as the legal process can be a lengthy and daunting one. However, systemic failures to reporting victims are at the heart of such low confidence in the current system as one that fairly and adequately represents the interests of women taking the brave step to report.
The End Violence Against Women Coalition, one of the projects funded by The Circle’s Chai Day initiative, is in the process of taking the Crown Prosecution Service to court over the ‘catastrophic’ drop in rape prosecutions (down by 44% since 2014) whilst the increase in the number of rapes reported to the police is up by 173%. The lobbying organisation ‘have heard from many women who have decided to report rape to the police; have endured what can be very gruelling questioning and possibly medical examinations; have had to sacrifice their phone, computer and personal records; endure an agonising wait; to then be told that the case has been dropped’ whilst the Guardian reported last year that a training session at the CPS encouraged prosecutors to take the ‘weak cases out of the system’ to improve its conviction rate.
A culture that discourages victims from speaking up to report their abuse is not one that supports its most vulnerable. Global Feminism is a movement designed to highlight the rampant inequalities across the globe that women and girls still face, drawing attention and encouraging action to the abuses suffered by women globally.
For the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, The Circle wanted to examine the process of reporting for victim-survivors around the world and the enforcement of women’s right to be free from harm through The Circle’s projects providing front-line services to victims of violence. Despite the increased our exposure and awareness of the issue of sexual violence in the aftermath of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, victims of rape and sexual assault are still being victimised and consistently let down by the criminal justice system.
We see victim-survivors being discouraged at every stage of the process, impeding their access to justice. It is clear that negative attitudes and prejudices are influencing the way that woman are treated in the judiciary system resulting in not only a woefully low number of convictions but also a prevalence of shame placed on the victim.
The Circle supports the Nonceba Family Counselling Centre in South Africa, located in Khayelitsha, a township just outside Cape Town. For years, unemployment and crime rates have been high, particularly around violence against women and children with little services and support for the victims. The centre has a shelter for women who have survived domestic violence or have been victims of human trafficking. Most women in the shelter are HIV positive, are struggling to access healthcare and have received limited education and training.
Violence against women is the most common form of human rights violation in India. Shame, stigma and a lack of support from the police and legal system prevent many women from reporting domestic violence and seeking help.
Whilst there is a level of shame ascribed to victims of sexual assault in India, for those who do come forward and choose to make an allegation to the police the process can result in further shaming and dismissive responses.
“The doctor said to my daughter ‘If they had forced themselves on you, there should have been marks on your body – but you don’t have any. You must have done this of your own free will.” – Palak’s mother, Palak (name changed to protect her identity), a Dalit woman, was 18 when she reported being kidnapped and raped in Madhya Pradesh, in June 2013.
Human Rights Watch also found that police were often reluctant to file allegations, particularly for victims from a socially and economically marginalised community. Citing that ‘police sometimes pressure the victim’s family to “settle” or “compromise”’. Often, Dalit or other “low-caste” families are encouraged to drop their case if the perpetrator is of a higher caste.
One of the projects funded by last year’s Chai Day was a number of survivor centres in rural communities of Chhattisgrah and Odisha to challenge the social acceptance of sexual and domestic violence against women. In Chhattisgarh, there has been State-Level Consultation on the State Gender Equality Policy, which had not been revisited for more than a decade. Projects and community building like this are essential to support victim-survivors who feel they are unable to approach or are refused help by the police.
Bina and her son were offered counselling and legal support.
ACT Alberta is an anti-trafficking organization in Canada working collaboratively law enforcement, government agencies and non-governmental organisations to identify and respond to human trafficking in Alberta. One of their primary operations is providing victim support services for victims of sexual trafficking, in which they delivery trauma recovery, improve access to the justice system and obstacles within that system for victims. It is important to note here that the service receives funding from the Canadian government for those victims who are willing to go through the judiciary system, however, as we have seen in previous countries, women often feel that this isn’t an option, particularly those from marginalized communities and those whose immigration status may be at risk. Victims who do not have permanent right to live in Canada are often wary of approaching the police for concern that they will be deported, believing that their current situation is preferable to returning to their country of birth.
In cases across the world, even those women and girls who come forward are being dismissed and let down.
Tina Fontaine’s great-aunt, Thelma Favel showing a photo of the girl. Photo credit: Aaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times.
Across the globe, attitudes towards victims of rape and a prevailing tolerance for rape and serious sexual assault is resulting in a lack of justice for victim-survivors. Women are reluctant to come forward and when they do, their experiences can be traumatic. Front-line services delivered by our Chai Day projects are so important because the judiciary system is failing women who make the brave decision to come forward and report rape and serious sexual assault.
It falls on projects like Rape Crisis, ACT Alberta and the Nonceba Centre to fill the gaps in services that the judiciary system is failing to provide, to support victim-survivors through their navigation of the criminal justice system and ensure that their rights are being observed. These organisations are woefully underfunded and often receive incredibly limited or no funding from the government.
“I guess, the, kind of, base point for all of that was [local] Rape Crisis believed me. They never questioned me. They never challenged it. They’ve never said, well I don’t know, when the police seem to think different. They’ve always believed me and they have gone from that perspective, and so I knew I could trust them. And that trust has, you know, built and remained … they worked at putting, sort of, coping mechanisms in place for when I couldn’t manage” – Rebecca
Chai Day is about gathering together with friends, family or colleagues to raise funds to support survivors of gender-based violence. November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the sixteen days that follow is your chance to host a Chai Day.
This article was written by Anna Renfrew. Anna is The Circle’s Projects and Communications Officer and has been heading up preparations for our Chai Day campaign. She has written a number of articles for The Circle, taking a particular interest in the global issue of violence against women.
Filmed in Cape Town’s notorious Lavender Hill, Waves explores the perspective of three young girls as they grow up together in South Africa. We spoke to Jessie Ayles about this incredible project and the issue of gender-based violence.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?
I’m a documentary filmmaker based in London – I’ve always been motivated by imbalances or injustices in the world, and try to pursue projects that reflect on these types of issues to create an impact or some form of change or conversation.
Why did you decide to focus on the issue of gender-based violence for your project?
Women, in all walks of life, often draw the short straw, whether you’re looking at gaps in wages, structures of society, education or more urgent matters like gender based violence. Women in these communities, as we know, suffer huge amounts of gender based violence and attacks, there is still a very strong patriarchy in these communities that place young girls at the bottom of the ‘food chain’ – I was interested in exploring the feelings of young girls there, to translate their point of view, and their own experiences so that people would really be able to empathise and understand the extent that this affects a life.
One of The Circle’s EVAWG projects is located in South Africa, but violence against women is a global issue, why did you decide to focus on this country and community in particular?
My parents are South African and I have dual citizenship, but I actually grew up in London, so i’ve always had a connection to South Africa and interest to understand the country and its complexities.
I think what also really motivated me to work with this community is that most South African’s ordinarily would never really enter these communities due to fear of crime, and in turn never really understand what life is like for the most vulnerable there. It’s a country largely still divided by wealth, and I wanted to create something that would offer an insight from marginalised voices we ordinarily wouldn’t be able to get access to, especially as young girls, and break down these barriers.
What was the experience of filming on such a difficult subject? Particularly with such young women.
I was lucky to be able to really take my time making this film, I spent a lot time just getting to know the girls at surf lessons, and listening, so by the time we started filming we just felt like friends hanging out. I think this really helped them feel comfortable with me, and also meant the filming days were never too intense. It was difficult and shocking for me to hear how these girls felt, but to be honest, for them, I think this type of violence had become quite normal that they were almost used to talking about it.
There was another aspect to filming, and that was that I was able to offer the girls a voice – I think that they felt special by being a part of the film, that their story and feelings were important.
So, despite the subject matter of the film being so sensitive, the girls were at the end of the day still just young girls, they loved getting extra time surfing, playing, laughing, going on trips with me that they normally wouldn’t be able to get access to – and I really loved that experience too.
The film is incredibly beautiful and moving, what did you find most challenging about the process?
I think the biggest challenge with this film, and filming in the community was safety and access. The area that the girls live in is Lavender Hill, it’s notorious in Cape Town for gang violence and crime, it’s really not a safe area to drive in, you roll the dice every time you enter. This being said, I couldn’t get any funding to make this film so wasn’t able to hire security or special transportation. So that was very limiting, we would have to work out which days and times would be less of a risk to go into the community and set our self time limits filming on the streets etc I think we got everything we needed for the film, but I would have loved to embed myself a little more into their daily home life if the limitations weren’t there.
The Circle is an organisation of women empowering women. Is that motivation something that you feel plays a role in your work?
Yes definitely. I think I spent quite a long time not really honing in on what I care most about – I was making a documentary about a Burmese guerilla fighter about 5 years ago, someone who had rebelled against the Burmese military and gone into exile in Chiang Mai, he had given up everything for what he believed in. He kept on asking me why I was interested in making a film about him, he couldn’t quite understand – I told him it was because he was fascinating, but he was still confused, he kept on telling me ‘Jessie, you’ve got to find your people’. At the time it didn’t register, I just thought ‘What people…I don’t have the same sort of authoritarian government to overthrow like you did, ’. But then it clicked, by highlighting women’s stories and voices – whose injustices I can personally relate to – I feel more like I have found ‘my people’ to fight for.
What would you encourage those watching the film to do in order to support women and girls across the globe who are survivors of gender-based violence?
The scale of this issue is so large that it can feel a little daunting sometimes at where to start or what can be done to help. But in my experience working with NGOs on the ground, I see how much of a difference these organisations can make to someone’s life. The surfing that offers these girls an outlet in the film was organised by an NGO called Waves for Change – a small thing like a surfing lesson once a week can make all the difference to someones life – it can give them that breath of air they need or support to keep going.
So my advice would be to do some research on NGOs, like The Circle’s EVAWG projects, and donate whatever you can to help keep them going. You could also volunteer at NGOs if you live near one that’s making a difference to women’s lives, or even keep spreading the message and raising awareness to keep the conversation going.
What is the situation in South Africa like now?
Unfortunately since the filming of Waves the situation in South Africa has become even more volatile for women. A spate of recent sexual assaults, murders and kidnappings of young girls and women caused outrage and saw country-wide protests – demanding the government to effectively tackle the issue. While some policies have been amended, like the retraction of bail for rape suspects, there is still a huge space for work needed to help support victims, prevent violence and create gender equality and awareness. This is why I believe NGOs are so important right now for those South Africans who have to live through this on a daily basis.
You can watch Jessie’s award-winning short film here:
One of our Chai Day projects is located in Khayelitsha, a township just outside Cape Town. Khayelitsha is the largest township in the Western Cape province and has a high level of overcrowding and poverty. For years, unemployment and crime rates have been high, particularly around violence against women and children with little services and support for the victims. The Nonceba Family Counselling Centre offers survivors offers a place to stay, individual and family counselling, legal support, access to healthcare, educational programmes and victim empowerment groups. Find out more about hosting a Chai Day to support women and girls across the globe here.
Jessie is a South African and British filmmaker. Her work shines a light on female-centred stories and marginalised voices, bringing a cinematic and fresh perspective to socially conscious stories. She studied Film & Literature at Warwick University, then went onto a Masters in Screen Documentary at Goldsmiths University where she won a One World Media Bursary.
Jessie’s interest in impact and stories that highlight morals or human rights, with her distinctive style, led her to work with the social impact arm of many brands and NGOs, creating poignant film campaigns for clients such as Nike, Google, M&C Saatchi & Always.
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
“Women are powerful. Women are beautiful and strong. Women are wild, raw and resourceful. We must join together, and we must use our strength and resources to overcome.”
Meet Alice Sinclair and Sophie Gradden, the women empowering other women through an evening of art and conversation on 19th June. Alice, a member of The Circle, and Sophie, a UK-based artist are putting on an incredible event to raise funds for the Nonceba Family Counselling Centre. During the art class, which begins at 6.30pm, you will be able to select a favourite female icon to paint with the aim “go wild on canvas”! As well as having creative fun, you will be connecting with like-minded women and learning more about The Circle’s projects.
This a perfect example of how when women come together and organise, they can be a powerful force for change. We sat down and spoke to them about The Circle, fundraising and feminism …
Alice Sinclair works in the healthcare sector and is a member of The Circle.
Tell us a bit about yourself:
I have been based in London for 12 years. I work in the healthcare sector as an NLP therapist and a trainee Psychotherapist. I am also the editor of a local magazine. I have witnessed and experienced gender inequality in many forms throughout my life. I still see it everyday, and with my work as a therapist I see the impacts. Ending violence against women is my passion. It is it very close to my heart (near the cat section). I long for a world one day where the inhabitants are like WTF is inequality? Did that actually exist?
Why did you decide to organise this fundraising event?
This event is the beginning of many. Nothing feels more close to my heart than actively supporting and holding a platform for women to come together and work towards making a difference in the murky environment of gender based inequality. Sophie Gradden is a hoot to hang around with, it will be a memorable evening.
Why do you think the work of Nonceba Family Counselling centre is so important?
As a trainee therapist most of my NHS work has been with women who have experienced violence or abuse in its many guises. It tears you down. It whittles away confidence. The trauma can have a horrifying impact on how you live your life. Abuse can lead to very serious situations such as PTSD, agoraphobia, eating disorders, addictions, self harm and suicide. These can be passed down through generations. Wonderful charities like Nonceba are a vital refuge. They provide hope, and a way forward. For a year they will protect and physically and mentally support victims of domestic abuse. Nonceba gives women a way out. It breaks that generational passing. It de-normalises.
What does Women Empowering Women mean to you?
When I was ten years old, a teacher discovered I could bowl a cricket ball better than the boys in my class. I was invited to play on the boys team as there was no team for girls. As I ran up to bowl the first ball of my first match, both teams jeered. “she’s wearing a skirt” or “get lost you’re a girl”. I crumbled. That was to be my first and last match with that team.
This was my first experience of gender based inequality. My first experience of gender based violence was when I was eight, I am less inclined to discuss this freely. The point I am getting at is, women are powerful. Women are beautiful and strong. Women are wild, raw and resourceful. We must join together, and we must use our strength and resources to overcome every single face and aspect of discrimination, sexism, misogyny and abuse. Women need women.
Sophie Gradden is an artist living and working in the UK and we’re incredibly excited to have her working with The Circle for this event!
Tell us a little bit about yourself:
I am a contemporary artist, temporarily living & working in Buckinghamshire. I’ve not always been an artist mind, but always dabbled in the creative industries of furniture & interior design.
In November 2016 I reignited my love for painting and set up a makeshift studio in my home and began creating, whilst working full time. Since then, the art continues. In April 2018 I had a total mental meltdown, suffering with depression and anxiety, I made the decision to take a break, a life sabbatical as I like to label it, and dedicate myself to my art full time, no more 9-5, just painting, painting, painting. Best thing I’ve ever f**king done.
Why did you decide to organise this fundraising event?
Why would we not? Any group of people gathering together to try and do better in this world, no matter how big or small the overall impact it may have…it’s something right! The more we do it, the more we talk about it, the more people will start to realize that these sometimes minute or minor situations to the absolute horrendous (even unimaginable) us wonderful women find ourselves put into is NOT ok!! Things have got to change. This I hope is a small yet mighty step towards that.
Why do you think the work of Nonceba Family Counselling centre is so important?
We must remember even though we are still fighting for gender equality and ending violence against women here in the UK, some countries sadly are still 10 steps behind us, which is frightening. The woman I am and the women I surround myself with, friends, family, colleagues, have all come up against gender equality issues, thankfully never violence, however I speak for a mere spec of the population, in fact the world. Even bigger problem!! What about the women who don’t have a choice and the support, someone to be there for them when the world has unfairly shunned them and continues to kick them, sometimes quite literally, when they are down, Nonceba is that answer. Nonceba is a positive way forward, one of many great projects that the circle supports.
What does Women Empowering Women mean to you?
Simple…My mum, my sister, my nan (sadly no longer with us) my sister in law, my best friend, my friends, my past colleagues…the amazing woman who I didn’t know, who reached out and held my hand on the train, when I was in a state of emotional anxiety, we didn’t even speak, we only exchanged a smile as she handed me a tissue. You saved me in that moment. Thank you.
To help raise funds for victims of domestic violence, rape and sex trafficking. To join in and support them so they too can begin to heal and return to their world stronger.
What did organising a Chai Day make you learn about gender-based violence?
That there are different forms of gender-based violence and all of them need our attention. Because it is a major public health and human rights issues. I learned that young girls around the same age as my sister are been taking away from their mother’s arms and subjected to prostitution, been raped and abused physically and emotionally, and it needs to stop. I learned that if I can gather fierce and determined women in a room to support my cause, then we are one step closer to ending this for someone.
What are your top tips to organise a Chai Day?
Don’t do it alone. It is a ‘team’ event. So gather your friends, their friends, members of your family and their friends and host a Chai Day, because it will be so worth it when you include people in your world to support a great cause.
When Bina was pregnant, she was physically and verbally abused by her husband and threatened with more abuse if she told anyone. When she fled to her family’s home, her husband attacked them too.
Bina and her family went to the police station but the police refused to help her. Luckily, one of The Circle’s and Oxfam’s partner organisations spotted the family as they were walking into the police station and offered their help.
The organisation offered Bina counselling and legal support. She has managed to put her husband behind bars, has applied for child maintenance and is learning how to sew so that she can get a job and raise her son Vijay, who is two years old now.
Despite enormous societal pressure, Bina refuses to return to her husband.
The Circle, Oxfam, several local organisations and women leaders in Chhattisgarh and Odisha are working together to set up support centres offering medical care, legal advice, counselling and shelters to survivors of gender-based violence. Click here to find out more about the project.
Photo credit: Jan Dago. Published by Alexia Foundation. Internally-displaced civilians during the Sierra Leone civil war.
In modern wars, it is now more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier on the front line. Women can endure violence, rape and even see their children killed.
In 2008, the United Nations formally declared rape a “weapon of war”, and Major General Patrick Cammaert, a former UN force commander, spoke of the spread of rape as a war tactic, saying: “It has become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict.”
The first order of business in conflict zones is usually to deprive women of education and health services, restricting any kind of participation in economic and political life. However, in recent conflicts, sexual violence statistics have skyrocketed with staggering levels of mass rapes being reported.
Declared over in January 2002, the civil war in Sierra Leone had raged for more than a decade, leaving half of the pre-war population displaced, 50,000 dead, 100,000 mutilated and over a quarter of a million women raped.
In a three-month time period during the 1994 genocide, more than 250,000 women and girls were raped in Rwanda.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo – also known as the rape capital of the world – 48 women were raped every hour during the 2011 conflict, making the statistics almost one woman per minute.
There’s no denying that rape in wartime is an act of violence that targets sexuality. Moreover, militias quickly discovered that the most cost-effective way to terrorise civilian populations is to conduct rapes of mass brutality. The humiliation, pain, and fear inflicted by perpetrators not only dominates and degrades the individual victim, but also her community.
Christina Lamb, foreign correspondent for The Times, told in a TEDxExeter talk in May 2017 of some of the things she had witnessed when working in the field.
“Over the last year I’ve seen worse things than I’ve ever seen before,” she said.
“In Northern Nigeria three years ago, around 200 girls were kidnapped from their school in Chibok and the story made international news for around two weeks. I went there and found out that, actually, more than 1,000 girls had been abducted, unreported. And when I spoke to these girls, they had terrible stories about being gang-raped by Boko Haram fighters and being forced to marry them.
“Some of them had escaped and were in camps but they told me that their own families wouldn’t take them back because they saw them as being sullied or they were worried they’d been indoctrinated. In fact, one of them – a little girl – had been so badly raped that she couldn’t walk. She shuffled like a crab.”
Modern wars are increasingly characterised by these barbaric acts of sexual violence to terrorise populations and destroy communities.
“And then there was the Yazidi girls. 5,000 of them abducted by ISIS and sold for less than the price of a cigarette packet. I spoke to one of them who had been released and she told me that the worst night of her life was when her captor – a fat judge – brought back a 10-year-old girl and raped her in the room next door to her, as she cried for her mother all night”, said Christina Lamb.
ISIS continues to unleash violence that disproportionately targets women and girls as young as three and the victims are often enslaved, sexually abused and traded like chattel in the human trafficking underworld where their payment is then used to fund the war and further terrorist attacks.
Even after conflict has ended, the impacts of sexual violence persist, with unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and stigmatisation rife in post-war communities. Widespread sexual violence itself may continue or even increase in the aftermath of conflict and meeting the needs of survivors — including medical care, HIV treatment, psychological support, economic assistance and legal redress – often requires resources that most post-conflict countries do not have.
So, what can we do to help?
Advancing women’s rights and empowerment is vital in addressing the needs of female survivors worldwide. Not only do we need to raise awareness of atrocities against women and girls, but we also need to fight for justice and reforms in policy and foreign diplomacy.
We must work to remove the stigma around sexual violence, help women and girls tell their stories and create and help existing support systems for survivors. The Circle strives to achieve all of these.
Photo: Fiona at her Chai Day at the University of Bristol.
The Circle volunteer Fiona Gilligan shares her experience supporting a women’s rights NGO in Buenos Aires and how it inspired her to organise a Chai Day at the University of Bristol.
I was fortunate enough to spend the first six months of 2016 in Buenos Aires, combining my interest in fashion and textiles with a cause I feel incredibly strongly about – women’s rights and gender equality.
Therefore, in recent years there has been a rise in the number of NGOs dedicated solely to the needs of women. Mediapila is one such organisation. It is dedicated to empowering and mobilising women through sewing and dressmaking workshops. The overall aim of the foundation is to provide women from underprivileged backgrounds with the skills and, more importantly, the confidence, to be able to find employment in the textiles industry.
The foundation works solely with women, as they believe that women symbolise the root to social change. Working towards a better future for these women enables them to also provide a better future for their children and families, thus changing society on a greater scale.
I was struck by the creativity and tenacity of the women at the foundation, many of whom were in the process of developing their own businesses alongside their studies at the foundation. They all possessed an incredible passion to learn and a genuine desire to change their lives for the better. I formed strong relationships with many of them, in particular María, a former student who had gone on to become a teacher at the foundation. María’s infectious laughter filled the workshop each day and was a reminder to all the women of the power of female strength and beauty. Despite experiencing such hardship in the shape of forced migration, discrimination and poverty, María embraced each day with a smile. I felt privileged to be working with such strong and inspirational women like María on a daily basis.
My experience in Buenos Aires made me very aware that, although we still have a long way to go in terms of gender equality, we have many privileges as women in the UK. All women should have access to the same opportunities in order to reach their full potential in life. This is a joint responsibility, and it is essential that we collectively recognise this in order to achieve gender equality.
This motivated me to get involved with further gender equality projects when I returned to university in Bristol. My friend Erin was doing an internship at The Circle and told me about Chai Day. It is a great initiative that brings people together over a cup of chai in order to raise awareness and funds to combat gender-based violence in the UK, India and South Africa. It was incredibly easy to organise. The Circle provides a detailed information pack, as well as a poster template to advertise your Chai Day around your university, workplace, or wherever you are planning to hold it. All that was left to do was to get baking! I was incredibly pleased with the support from other students and with the amount we managed to collectively raise.
If you would like to hold your own Chai Day to raise awareness about gender-based violence in your community, inspire your friends or colleagues, and raise funds to support women who have survived violence, go to www.chaiday.org.