DRC: The ‘rape capital’ of the world

April 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. Rape is a tool of war, strategic rape is used to render whole communities crippled, physically and mentally. This blog has looked at the situation before for women caught in the warzone – in a country where 40 women are raped every day, the situation has reached the level of a global catastrophe. In a new campaign called Congo Now!, a group of 16 UK_based NGOs, charities and campaigning groups have joined together to raise awareness of the continuing violence and civilian suffering in the DRC. Members include Save The Children, CAFOD, Women for Women International, Global Witness and Christian Aid. In a guest post,  Robert Davidson from Congo Now writes for the Gilded Cage Blog on the situation for women and what can be done to make a difference to one of the worst conflicts of our lifetimes.

 

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the world’s most forgotten conflicts. An estimated 5.4m have lost their lives in the last 15 years, most through preventable disease and malnutrition unleashed by the conflict.

That is the equivalent of the population of Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Sheffield, Bradford, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Cardiff and Coventry put together. Another 1.7m have been forced from their homes.

Rape has been used as tool of war in this conflict, with children as young as 3 months and women as old as 80 have been attacked; making the DRC the ‘rape capital of the world’, according to Margot Wallstrom, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict.

Rape is used by rebels and military to keep the population under control, to force people out of their homes, to coerce people into labour and to appease troops that spend much of their lives hunted in the jungle. As Maurizio Giuliano, at the UN puts it: “This is not about opportunistic rape; rather, it is a strategy.”

Women survivors are often ostracised for having been raped; their husband, their family and their community may shun them. All the while the women are stigmatised, there is often complete impunity for the rapists, even if they are known.

The UK Government is one of the largest financial contributors to the DRC government. The UK will spend an average of £198m per year in DRC until 2015. But how this money will be spent is not yet decided.

Last year, 14,591 new cases of sexual violence were reported in DRC, yet there is still only one main rape crisis centre where women can go for support.  Often women have to walk for days in order to receive post rape health care.  The majority of these rapes go completely unprosecuted, perpetuating the idea that rape can be used as a weapon of war.

This situation is unacceptable. Now is the time to act.

Congo Now calls for you to write to International Violence Against Women champion, Lynne Featherstone MP to get the UK government to live up to its commitment: the UK Department for International Development have stated that “improving the lives of girls and women will be a major priority” in the DRC.  So help us hold the government to account on this.

 Now is the time when Lynne Featherstone will be deciding which countries to focus on in her role.  We want to make sure that DRC is at the top of this list.

 Click here to sign the petition and add your voice.

Congo NOW! is a coalition of 16 of the UK’s most active NGOs and UK-based Congolese campaigning organisations.  Our aim is to raise awareness of the ongoing conflict in DRC, the continuing violence and civilian suffering as well as to raise broader awareness of the situation in the country as a whole: both the good and the bad.

We believe, NOW is the time for the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo to be genuinely free: free from violence and free from poverty.  You can contribute to this change; act now!

For more information go to www.congonow.org, www.facebook.com/congonow  or www.twitter.com/Congo_Now

Violence in Bangladesh over new equality law

April 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

Photo EPA: Protests in Bangladesh

Riots have broken out today in Bangladesh over a new law  which would give women equal property rights as men. The country, although it has a secular legal system most the time, bows to Sharia law in issues relating to inheritance, and therefore a woman only inherits half as much as her brother.

Under the National Women Development Policy, she would inherit equally.

More than 100 protestors have been taken into custody today according to police, but there is worryingly a high level of support for challenging a law like this. The Islamic Law Implementation Committee for example (not surprisingly, I suppose) saying that the protests had the support of the “people” and that they go against the Koran. In a country where 90% of the population are Muslim, a claim like that carries great power.

Women in Bangladesh are an important part of the workforce, with many working as they do in export trades such as making garments. But, women are still part of an overwhelmingly patriarchal society, being judged by their family life, and their opportunities in the country tend to be markedly fewer. For example, there is a higher dropout rate from school for girls than boys, and younger children face a higher mortality rate if they are girls. Trafficking is a huge problem in Bangladesh, including kidnapping into Burma, as is domestic violence which can often pass under the averted eyes of the community.

The return of prime minister Sheik Hasina Wazed to the government in 2008 has been another positive role model for women in the country, and as a member of the Council of World Women leaders she has put rights for women high on the priority list. Nonetheless she has been locked in conflict with extremists in the country throughout her political career, and has withstood assassination attempts on her own life and the murder of many of her colleagues.

It goes without saying that this blog supports these new laws and wishes safety to those pushing them through. Until women can secure economic independence they will always be viewed as second class citizens in a country. This is another step towards independence for women in Bangladesh. I hope the government holds fast in its commitment to give women greater rights in education, employment and inheritance.

The missing daughters of India

April 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Here in the UK we have just finished filling out our census forms. Nothing too shocking is likely to come out of it, except a more accurate representation of the ethnic diversity of Britain and perhaps some interesting figures on the number of couples living outside of marriage.

In India, the country’s recent census reveals a far more noteworthy statistic. It has just recorded the lowest gender ratio  since India’s Independence in 1947. The gender ration says that there are 914 girls to every 1000 boys.

These gender imbalances don’t just “happen” by a quirk of nature. What it means is for every 1000 boys, there are at least 86 girls under the age of six who were killed before or at birth. And what this means is that there is an endemic culture of destroying daughters and protecting sons.

According to campaigning groups, girls are often dying as part of a campaign of neglect. If a daughter is ill, she is not always bought medicine. If there isn’t enough food, she is often the one who goes hungry.  The site Gender Bytes calls this “negligent homicide”,  supported by the fact that girls under five in India have got a 40% higher mortality rate than boys the same age.

An increase in ultrasound technology and the ready availability of tests to determine a baby’s sex has also lead to millions of female foetuses being aborted, according to the medical journal The Lancet.

And those that are born that are unwanted can face hideous circumstances – read some of them here – where mothers won’t feed their babies, or poison them, or abandon them. One shocking part of this report reads: “For despite the risk of execution by hanging and about 16 months of a much-ballyhooed government scheme to assist families with daughters, in some hamlets of Tamil Nadu, murdering girls is still sometimes believed to be a wiser course than raising them”

Social bigotry towards girls has a long cultural history in India, and stats like this bring home the serious human cost of outdated misogyny. The gradual increase of standards of living for women in India, better financial independence and more social mobility across the country will help to challenge these old stereotypes that having a girl is a financial and cultural burden.

Because there is no alternative – the country can’t carry on in this trend, with fewer and fewer women each census. The women who are brought up as second class citizens then raise their daughters as second class citizens – this census should prove a wake up call that it’s time to change the system before any more precious female lives are wasted, and all their life’s potential lost with them.

After all as woman one put it, after killing her second daughter: “ “Instead of her suffering the way I do, I thought it was better to get rid of her.”

This census cost the Indian state 22bn rupees.  I hope the cost can prove to be an investment with desperately needed rewards for women.

Soueif: “The revolution was not fought along gender lines”

March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Picture by Hossam el-Hamalawy: Ahdaf Soueif in Tahrir Square

Just a few lines on a really interesting talk last night from Ahdaf Soueif, the Egyptian writer who was in Cairo at the time of the recent protests, writing for the Guardian and participating in the revolution there.

Interesting for itself, as she is a truly inspirational woman and fascinating to hear talk generally, the event was also an insight into the role of women in Egyptian protests. Asked about the role of women, she was keen to stress that the protest was not seen in gender terms, and that the country’s women were there, participating, taking an active role in the political action.

“Every single type of woman was there in Tahrir Square. People need to know that the protestors in Egypt were not seeing this on gender terms,” Soueif insisted. And this article supports that ideology – women were being pragmatic, Egyptian, citizens all facing the same oppression.

There are, she admitted, gender challenges ahead. Women in Egypt feel largely patronised by plans to assign a certain number of seats in the new parliament to women, and there are issues around the number of women in the work force that need to be addressed as the new state forms – and some concerns about any extremist party that might rise to power in the current uncertainty. Unquiet has also begun to rumble around the fact that there are no women at all in the Constitutional Drafting Committee   – and rightly so. This is a very comprehensive post that works through the constitution and the new amendments, and what they mean for women, and is well worth a read to get to grips with the changes.

So it was a rare opportunity to hear a powerful voice speak out so passionately about her country, and conclude that yes, there are challenge ahead for the country – but that women will be a part of them, want to be a key part of them, and won’t forget their part in the revolution.

“Things are good in Egypt,” she said. “Things are great and can only get better as far as women are concerned.”

And her conclusion was particularly interesting. She finished by saying that the country was facing the question: “How do the people change policy?” And this is indeed the challenge now facing Egypt – to make all the people united and represented by the new state, without discrimination on terms of race, education or gender.

Fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan

March 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

 

Shabnam, 17, from Kabul: Photo Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

Six Afghan women are training up to attend the 2012 London Olympics to represent their war-torn country – a fact which would have been imaginable in Taliban times, when all sport for all women was banned. Several are female boxers, who train in Kabul’s main stadium, where women used to be publicly executed for adultery. In such a short space of time the symbolism of the change of use for this building cannot be exaggerated.

But, let’s not get carried away. It’s still unusual for women to take part in sport, to compete internationally in sport – and a violent sport at that.  Many rural areas in particular do not allow women the opportunity to participate in sport, even since the overthrow of the Taliban. Women are often restricted by conforming to strict rules of purdah, which means they don’t leave their homes very often.

So, victories are to be celebrated and held up as examples. Afghanistan’s first female cricket team was also formed in January, training in a park with high walls where men are banned. They know if they train in public, even covered in headscarves, somebody will disturb them and try to stop them

And it’s interesting to read of older generations of women taking an active role in promoting the younger ones. 17-year-old Shafika’s mother was the one who encouraged her to get into boxing: “When I started boxing I felt myself free and comfortable and happy. In the name of Afghanistan, we should have some women boxing and get some medals.

“We want the Afghan flag to come up at all the medal ceremonies for women boxing.”

Other sports women are hoping to compete in at the Olympics include taekwondo and judo.

For women everywhere, let’s hope these competitors get through the qualifying stages and make it to London next year, and earn the right to take some pride in their country on a global stage, after years of persecution and war.

Girls as young as 13 trafficked in Cambodia

March 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

 

Girls as young as 13 are being recruited from Cambodia to work in Malaysian households with fake birth certificates, according to a UN report out today.

The girls are being confined in overcrowded and unhygienic “training centres”, with reports of several being killed or injured in desperate attempts to escape – and of course, with human trafficking, someone makes money. And not the person being abused.

In this case, brokers source the girls and get paid the fees. The recruiting companies trick illiterate village residents – more than 100 agencies are reported to exist targeting this sort of business.

The government has made some very positive noises about tackling this problem, which can only be positive, but nonetheless estimated that it will take three more years to fully tackle this problem.

MP and former minister for women’s affairs Mu Sochua has accused the government of complicity in trafficking: “The Cambodian government has effectively legalized human trafficking.” She also said the government was protecting the recruiting companies because some of its members might have financial interests in them.

These examples could be the tip of the iceberg, with the likelihood of girls also being smuggled through into Thailand.

The best way to tackle this is to improve the status of women in Cambodian society, and their rights as female workers. Make a collective decision that it is not acceptable to employ a young girl, without her passport.

Women in Cambodia were denied the right to hold a rally for International Women’s Day this month. Bizarre rules around Cambodian women marrying foreigners are also intended to target trafficking but could easily also be seen as a way of restricting a woman’s human right to marry who she wishes. Domestic violence is largely seen as a matter to be left between husband and wife, even though one-in-four women have suffered physical, sexual or emotional abuse from their husbands

Give women equal status, equal standing in society, make them financially independent and this sort of abuse will be whittled away to a memory.

“This is not opportunistic rape; it is a strategy”

March 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

AFP: Women in the DRC

 Another report published here that will receive far less attention than it should. Médecins sans Frontières has reported that the levels of mass rapes in Fizi, South Kivu have increased in the seemingly endless bitter conflict in the DRC.

Although cases of rape in the DRC are certainly not rare – used as a weapon of war, rape is a permanent feature in the country’s war, and in this area of South Kiva more than 8,000 rapes were recorded for the year 2010  – this report highlights an emerging trend of large-scale attacks in one targeted location. More than 200 people have been treated for this type of rape since January – ie in the last two months – just in this specific area of the country.

According to MSF, the armed men attack specific villages; take the villagers hostage, tie them up, steal their belongings, beat them, and systematically rape them – women, children, men, the whole village. The idea of rape, already a weapon of war, becomes a military strategy that leaves its victims devastated.

“Mass rapes and violent attacks are happening with alarming regularity in this particular part of the Fizi region,” says Annemarie Loof, MSF head of mission in South Kivu, in a statement to IRIN. “We are extremely concerned about the fate of civilians who are being targeted amid the increasing violence and insecurity in this part of eastern DRC.”

Not just extremely concerning – extremely baffling to try and imagine what does through a human being’s head when they draw up this horrific plan of attack. As this heartbreaking story highlights: this war is nothing to do with women. And yet they must bear the brunt of its pain.

While rape is used in the DRC to shame women, exclude them from their communities and cause a great deal of physical and psychological pain, in these mass attack cases it targets their families and brings an entire community to its knees

 As Maurizio Giuliano, at the UN puts it: “This is not about opportunistic rape; rather, it is a strategy.”

 To learn more about the situation in DRC, I would recommend this site . The campaign, called “Stop raping our greatest resource”, is inevitably grim reading. In South Kivu, an estimated 40 women are raped every single day: nearly 50% of the survivors of sexual attacks are children. 

But, this is an amazing site, full of information, interviews, facts – give it a few minutes of your time and think about donating to help target the biggest humanitarian crisis going on in the world today.

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